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By Peter Baker and Susan B. Glasser

Crowd Gathers to Protect Russia's Freedom of Speech

Washington Post Foreign Service, Saturday, March 31, 2001; 12:15 PM

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 the clock.

'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 directors.

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 press.'

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 government.

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 channel.'

© 2001 The Washington Post Company

See the original at http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A21285-2001Mar31.html

Washington Post Foreign Service, Saturday, March 31, 2001; 12:15 PM

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