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By Peter Baker and Susan B. Glasser

Large Rally in Moscow Backs Independent TV

Washington Post Foreign Service, Sunday, April 1, 2001; Page A21

Thousands Gather to Protest Moves by Putin

MOSCOW, March 31 -- As many as 20,000 people crowded Pushkin Square in central Moscow today to defend free speech and Russia's major private television network in one of the largest public displays of support for democratic liberties here 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 television 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 the crowd.

Rally organizers repeatedly invoked the days a decade ago when Muscovites poured into the streets to stand against a Communist coup and bring to an end seven decades of totalitarian Soviet rule. 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 today said the large turnout showed that Russians do not want to return to the policies of the past.

"At last, people have shown up," said Oleg Gribonov, 61, a mechanical engineer who rallied with Boris Yeltsin outside the Russian parliament building during the 1991 coup and came out today 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, when it will assert that it is now the majority owner and attempt to replace the board of directors.

If successful, it could mean the end to seven years of independence for the station that airs the most critical reports about 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 during a recent Washington visit. "We are not trying to interfere with freedom of the press."

But at today's protest, the crowd of mostly older middle-class Russians made clear that, for them, the issue is not a business dispute. "It's not about fighting corruption," Grigory Yavlinsky, leader of the reformist Yabloko party, shouted from the glitzy stage NTV installed in one of Moscow's busiest squares. "It's a fight against freedom of the press."

Yabloko and another reformist party, the Union of Right Forces, co-sponsored the event and helped turn out people under sunny skies.

Flag-waving babushkas danced to loud pop music and other women in fur coats wore NTV baseball caps during the two-hour-plus rally, where speakers alternated between quoting poetry and blasting Putin. Many placards in the crowd criticized Putin and his aides by name. Indeed, today's demonstration marked the first time in his yearlong presidency that the popular Putin has come under public attack by such a large crowd.

"Putin needs to explain himself," said Galina Fralova, an engineer in the crowd. "I can't understand why he would be doing this."

© 2001 The Washington Post Company

See the original at http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A20821-2001Mar31.html

Washington Post Foreign Service, Sunday, April 1, 2001; Page A21

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