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Saturday, 14 April, 2001, 12:23 GMT 13:23 UK
Analysis: The battle for NTV
Putin puppet
Putin - as featured in NTV's satirical puppet show Kukly
By BBC News Online's Stephen Mulvey

The latest action by NTV's new managers has brought about what all sides in this dispute have said they were trying to avoid - the break-up of the station's journalistic team.

For Russia's liberal intelligentsia, who were always NTV's keenest viewers and supporters, this is a serious loss, which risks being compounded if the new managers follow the country's other main television stations in making obedience to the Kremlin their chief editorial principle.

Vladimir Gusinsky
Gusinsky: Fighting extradition in Spain
Founded in 1993, NTV broke the mould of Soviet broadcasting, introducing political satire, lively independent-minded journalism, and slick production.

The puppet show, Kukly, featuring grotesque caricatures of leading politicians, was an instant hit, and the heavyweight weekly news and current affairs programme, Itogi, presented by Yevgeny Kiselyov increasingly outstripped its competitors.

Many of the intelligentsia, meanwhile, regarded the satirical Itogo programme created by ironist Viktor Shenderovich as the funniest programme on Russian television.

NTV's honest reporting from the front line of the first Chechen war of 1994-1996 awoke the Kremlin of Boris Yeltsin to the real meaning of media freedom.

But when the chips were down at the time of the 1996 presidential election, and a Communist victory seemed a real possibility, the station helped to orchestrate a blanket of favourable media coverage of the Yeltsin campaign.

Tool and beacon

Like the rest of the Russian media, it omitted to mention that Mr Yeltsin had suffered a heart attack between the first and second round of voting.

Pro-NTV rally in St Petersburg
Thousands have shown their support for NTV
This was a political deal for which NTV and its recently ousted owner, Vladimir Gusinsky, were amply rewarded.

It serves as a reminder that NTV has been a political tool in the hands of an oligarch, as well as a beacon of journalistic independence.

Different forces in Russia have tried to present the battle for control of NTV as a purely economic affair - a station that ran into financial difficulties, and was taken over by a creditor - or alternatively as a purely political affair - an attempt by the Kremlin to silence a vocal critic.

A third element, however, is the power struggle between Vladimir Putin and an oligarch who refused to acknowledge a distinction between business, politics, and journalism.

In an open letter on the front page of Monday's Izvestia newspaper, one of NTV's founders, Oleg Dobrodeyev, said the station had compromised itself in previous deals with the Kremlin and was now crying foul because another had failed.

He accused Mr Gusinsky of planning to offer the Kremlin softer coverage of the war in Chechnya in exchange for softer terms on the repayment of debts owed to state-controlled enterprises.

Democratic shortcomings

One prominent Russian political commentator, Yulia Latynina, accused Mr Gusinsky in the English-language Moscow Times this week of "active participation in Russia's information racket", which she characterised with the slogan: "Be my friend or I'll eat you."

Itogo, presented by Yevgeny Kiselyov
Yevgeny Kiselyov's current affairs programme Itogo outstripped competitors
NTV, she said, had stepped up its critical coverage of Kremlin politics when refused a loan from a state bank in 1999, and continued to present ultimatums to the Kremlin even after backing the losers in the Russian parliamentary and presidential elections.

In most countries a dispute of this kind would be settled in the courts, and on Monday during a visit to Russia by the German Chancellor, Gerhard Schroeder, Mr Putin said this was the solution he favoured.

However, what the NTV dispute shows, if nothing else, is the shortcomings of Russia's democratic institutions, including the judicial system.

This much was acknowledged even by a member of the board of Gazprom-Media, Anatoly Blinov, who quit in disgust after a Russian court overturned a decision it had taken a day earlier, declaring illegal the shareholders' meeting at which the company took control of NTV.

Mr Blinov, a lawyer, said he was resigning because of the strong-arm tactics used against the court, and told Izvestia that the forcible takeover "could spark massive acts of protest, not against what is done but how it is done."

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See also:

14 Apr 01 | Europe
Russian TV war intensifies
13 Apr 01 | Media reports
Putin: 'NTV not my problem'
05 Apr 01 | Europe
NTV on air but protests continue
04 Apr 01 | Europe
NTV's battle with the Kremlin
26 Mar 01 | Europe
Russian tycoon released on bail
05 Jun 00 | Media reports
Kremlin pulls strings on TV puppets
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