MOSCOW, March 31 – As many as 20,000 people crowded Pushkin Square
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.
Liberal 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
control of the Kremlin.
'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
deliver the final coup de grace to 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
surprisingly large turnout showed that Russians do not want to turn back
'At last, people have shown up,' said Oleg Gribonov, 61, a mechanical
engineer who rallied with Boris Yeltsin at the Russian White House in 1991
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 embattled 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 of
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 Chechnya
and other Kremlin policies. The other two major networks here, ORT and
RTR, already belong to the state and ignored today's rally on their
daytime news broadcasts.
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 (owned by The Washington Post Co.), faces an
uncertain future as well.
Gusinsky himself remains under house arrest at his villa in Spain, where
he fled last year and is fighting extradition to Russia on fraud
allegations. 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 to send him back to Moscow for prosecution.
Gazprom has insisted that it is only interested 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 the issue for them is not a business dispute. 'It's not
about fighting corruption,' Grigory Yavlinsky, leader of the liberal
Yabloko party, shouted from the glitzy stage NTV installed in one of
Moscow's busiest downtown squares. 'It's a fight against freedom of the
Yabloko and another reformist party, the Union of Right Forces,
co-sponsored the event and helped turn out people under sunny skies. In
recent days, NTV broadcast advertisements for the rally with the slogan,
'Come if you are free.'
Flag-waving babushkas danced to loud Russian pop music and elegant women
in fur coats wore NTV baseball caps during the two-hour-plus rally, where
speakers alternated between quoting poetry and blasting Putin. At one
point, a crowd of young men climbed on top of two Russian military trucks
to watch the spectacle, before being ushered off by stern-faced militia.
One sign proclaimed 'No TV Without NTV.' Many placards in the crowd
criticized Putin and his aides by name. 'Mr. President,' one implored,
'Leave NTV Alone.'
Indeed, today's demonstration marked the first time in his year-long
presidency that the popular Putin has come under public attack by such a
large crowd. The rally opened with a large-screen video salute to the
crowd by a Putin puppet who stars each Sunday night on NTV's biting satire
show, 'Kukly.' And from the stage, speakers blasted him, with one even
vowing to 'interrupt your sleep, Mr. President.'
'Putin needs to explain himself,' said Galina Fralova, an engineer in
the crowd. 'I can't understand why he would be doing this.'
Even so, Putin appears to have public support across Russia to do
whatever he wishes with NTV. One recent public opinion survey found 57
percent support the return of censorship in Russia, while a poll last year
said 52 percent thought NTV would be better if it were controlled by the
And even in the large crowd today, not all the bystanders were
supporters. One woman, young son in tow, glared on the side of the square
at the protesters. 'It doesn't matter if they shut NTV down,' said the
woman, who gave her name only as Larisa. 'There will just be another
© 2001 The Washington Post Company
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