The brilliant Vladimir Kara-Murza reports:
If one were to name a particular date when Russia’s nascent democracy succumbed to Vladimir Putin’s authoritarian regime, April 14, 2001 would be a fairly good contender. Ten years ago the Russian government, using the state-owned energy giant Gazprom as its proxy, seized control of NTV—the country’s largest and most popular independent television channel. There were, of course, other significant dates: June 22, 2003 (the government-ordered shutdown of TVS, Russia’s last independent television channel), October 25, 2003 (the arrest of oil tycoon and opposition supporter Mikhail Khodorkovsky), December 7, 2003 (the expulsion of pro-democracy parties from Parliament in heavily manipulated elections), December 12, 2004 (the abolition of direct gubernatorial elections—ironically, signed into law by Mr. Putin on Constitution Day). But it was the takeover of NTV that was, in many ways, the point of no return.
NTV was a great success story of 1990s Russia. What began in 1993 as a small studio, developed, with support from entrepreneur Vladimir Gusinsky, into the most professional, most respected, and most watched news team on Russian television. Unlike other large networks, NTV’s editorial policy was never dictated by the Kremlin. The station was renowned for its criticism of the wars in Chechnya and government corruption; its airtime was readily available to opposition politicians; its live debates and talk shows were the highlight of Russian election campaigns, its hard-hitting analytical program Itogi (In Sum) and satirical shows Kukly (Puppets) and Itogo(Grand Total) did not shy away from questioning the very highest authorities. President Boris Yeltsin used to say that when he didn’t like something on NTV, he switched off his television set. Mr. Putin decided to “switch off” NTV.
NTV’s problems began on the fourth day after Mr. Putin’s inauguration. On May 11, 2000, masked gunmen from the Federal Security Service (FSB) and the Prosecutor-General’s Office stormed the offices of Media Most, NTV’s parent company, and began seizing its documents. The ensuing events read like a detective saga. On June 13th, Mr. Gusinsky was arrested and placed for three days in Moscow’s infamous Butyrka prison. On July 8th, President Putin, in his annual state-of-the-nation address, declared that some media outlets in Russia have become “tools in the fight against the state.” On July 20th, Mr. Gusinsky, still under a prosecutorial recognizance, was forced to sign “Addendum # 6” (co-signed by Mr. Putin’s press minister, Mikhail Lesin) agreeing to transfer NTV to Gazprom in exchange for ending prosecution (Mr. Gusinsky later retracted his signature as having been given under pressure). The state-owned Gazprom, NTV’s creditor and minority (30 percent) shareholder, was used by the Kremlin as a tool for its takeover of the station. That “debts” were merely a pretext became apparent in early 2000, when Gazprom suddenly rejected the already-agreed restructuring deal. On January 19, 2001, the Moscow Bailiffs Service arrested 19 percent of NTV shares. On April 3rd, Gazprom staged an NTV “shareholder meeting,” appointing a new board filled with its own representatives and installing US financier Boris Jordan as director-general. NTV journalists refused to recognize the imposed management. Thousands of Russians rallied in Moscow and St. Petersburg in support of the embattled TV station—the largest pro-democracy gatherings since 1991. Dozens of prominent writers, actors, musicians, lawyers, parliamentarians signed an appeal in support of NTV and the freedom of speech. The regime ignored the protests. Around 3 a.m. on April 14, 2001 (which happened to be Holy Saturday), Gazprom-installed security guards took over NTV’s premises on the eighth floor of Ostankino Television Center and refused entry to journalists who had not agreed to work under the “new management.” More than 30 of NTV’s leading news reporters and anchors left the station and went to work at TV-6 (closed down on January 22, 2002) and TVS (closed down on June 22, 2003). Today, NTV exists in name, but not in substance. A once-proud independent voice has been turned into a haven for soap operas and crime shows. Its news content is indistinguishable from the rest of Russia’s state-controlled channels.
“NTV was our home,” said the network’s ousted lead anchor, Yevgeny Kiselyov, “this home has been ruined. Mean and cynical people who have neither shame nor conscience … ruined it.” Opposition leader Grigory Yavlinsky called the takeover of NTV “a humiliation not only for the journalists, but also for the viewers, a humiliation for millions of Russian citizens.” Opposition leader Boris Nemtsov said that “if NTV remains in the hands of Gazprom … it will simply be blasphemy to talk about freedom of speech in our country.” “A creeping coup d’état is in progress in the country,” asserted NTV’s founding president, Igor Malashenko, “The same people who tried to seize power in 1991, are trying it again. They are the same people, first and foremost, the FSB.”
Subsequent events proved the accuracy of this prediction. Far from a “shareholders’ dispute,” as Kremlin propagandists tried to present it, the NTV takeover was a defining moment in the history of modern Russia. Just as the silencing of NTV in 2001 signaled a shift to authoritarianism, the lifting of television censorship—whenever it comes—will be the first sure step on Russia’s return road to democracy.