MOSCOW As many as 20,000 people crowded Pushkin Squarein central
Moscow yesterday to defend free speech and Russia's major private
television network in one of the largest public displays of support
for democratic liberties in Russia in the post-Communist era.
Reformist politicians, soap-opera stars and even a world-champion
gymnast joined the rock-concert protest to pressure President
Vladimir Putin's government to call off its 10-month financial
and legal campaign against NTV, the only real source of TV news
in Russia not under the Kremlin's control.
``We defended freedom in 1991, and we will do the same thing
in 2001!'' Vladimir Lukin, a member of the State Duma, told thecrowd.
Rally organizers repeatedly invoked the days a decadeago when
Muscovites poured into the streets to stand against a Communist
coup and bring to an end seven decades of totalitarian Sovietrule.
Such demonstrations have grown rarer in recent years as many Russians
soured on democratic reforms, blaming them for instability and
continued economic hardship. But many in the crowd said the surprisingly
large turnout showed that Russians do not want to turn back the
``At last, people have shown up,'' said Oleg Gribonov, 61, who
rallied with Boris Yeltsin outside the Russian parliament building
during the 1991 coup and came out yesterday for NTV. ``We have
not been together for a long time. We need to unite again.''
The rally came at a pivotal moment for the station and the rest
of the media empire founded by business tycoon Vladimir Gusinsky.Gazprom,
the state-controlled energy monopoly chaired by a Putin aide,
plans to hold an NTV shareholders meeting on Tuesday where it
will assert that it is now the majority owner and attempt to replace
the board ofdirectors.
If successful, it could mean the end to seven years of independence
for the station that airs the most critical reports on Putin's
war in secessionist Chechnya and other Kremlin policies. The other
two major networks, ORT and RTR, already belong to the state and
gave only brief reports on the rally.
NTV is no longer the only media outlet under threat. Gusinsky's
respected daily newspaper, Sevodnya, may have to close by May
1 unless a buyer can be found. And Itogi, Gusinsky's weekly newsmagazine
published jointly with Newsweek, which is owned by The Washington
Post Co., faces an uncertain future as well.
Gusinsky remains under house arrest at his villa in Spain, where
he fled last year and is fighting extradition to Russia on fraud
charges. He was released on bail a week ago in what some legal
analysts interpreted as a sign that the Spanish court might turn
down the Russian request.
Gazprom has insisted that it is interested only in protecting
the financial investment it made in securing loans by Gusinsky's
holding company, Media-Most, and would not institute censorship.
``We have a serious conflict with Gusinsky; it's purely financial,''
Alfred Kokh, the Gazprom executive leading the NTV takeover, told
editors at The Post. ``We are not trying to interfere with freedom
of the press.''
But at Saturday's protest, the crowd made clear that the issue
for them is not a business dispute. ``It's not about fighting
corruption,'' Grigory Yavlinsky, leader of the reformist Yabloko
party, shouted from the stage. ``It's a fight against freedom
of the press.''
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