SIMON MARKS: After weeks of tension behind the scenes, the showdown over Russia's only national independent television station played itself out on Saturday morning. Viewers watching the news on NTV found themselves witnessing the news. Without warning, representatives of Gazprom, Russia's state-owned gas company, had forced their way into NTV's headquarters, located on the eighth floor of the sprawling complex that also houses the country's other two national networks, both state-owned and loyal to the government. Staff arriving for work were told their offices and studios were off-limits unless they signed an oath of loyalty to NTV's new managers.
After seven years working for Russia's most vibrant journalistic enterprise, many refused and signed letters of resignation instead. A new team of security guards was installed to ensure the takeover was complete. NTV's anchors, correspondents, producers and technicians left the building, many of them carrying publicity photographs of themselves that had once proudly hung in the network's corridors.
By 10:00 in the morning, NTV was back on air-- from the same studios, with the same logo, but with a team of anchors and journalists loyal to Gazprom, which claims a controlling stake in NTV after prematurely calling in loans it made to the station's management. A change in tone was evident. The newscast's lead story focused on Russia's Easter celebrations. And last night, in place of its flagship Sunday talk show, the network aired a musical comedy instead.
Those journalists remaining loyal to NTV's old management decamped to the studios of a small sister cable network. There they broadcast the story of their demise, but only to the network's small number of subscribers in 69 cities, not the national audience that had been available to them on NTV. After working around the clock, they succeeded in producing a rough-and-ready edition of the Sunday talk show that had previously been required viewing over on NTV.
Yevgeny Kiselev, formerly NTV's general director and chief correspondent, a man often described as Russia's Walter Cronkite, was caught unawares by the Gazprom takeover. For the past two weeks, he's led a rearguard action aimed at preventing Gazprom from seizing control of the network. Large demonstrations in support of Kiselev and his team followed a board meeting at which Gazprom claimed it had won a controlling stake in the network-- a move that still faces legal challenges in Moscow.
On Friday, Kiselev flew to Spain. There he was meeting NTV's founder, Vladimir Gussinsky, who fled to Spain after the Russian government charged him with embezzlement. Mr. Gussinsky was once one of the most powerful men in Russia, his media empire commanding huge influence and prestige in the Yeltsin era.
But since last year, it's been the target, first of commando raids, then of a government-led onslaught over still-unproven financial irregularities, an onslaught Mr. Gussinsky insists is politically motivated and aimed at silencing a stable of media holdings often critical of the Putin administration.
YEVGENY KISELEV: We really did not believe that the other side is going to attempt a hostile takeover with the use of force. And we were sitting for a whole day discussing different alternatives.
SIMON MARKS: By the time Kiselev returned to Moscow, the takeover was complete. At the studios of NTV, some of the staff who had decided to work on with the new management expressed cautious optimism that they would be allowed to work unmolested. But across the street, those journalists who had refused to work for the station's new owners vowed that they would fight on to keep freedom of speech alive.
It's still not clear where the former NTV staff will find a permanent home. They've been offered the chance to work at TV6, a network owned by Boris Berezovsky, another Yeltsin-era magnate living in exile. Mr. Berezovsky and Mr. Gussinsky have not had friendly relations in the past, but both find themselves out of work in the Kremlin, and they could team up to keep at least one media thorn in President Vladimir Putin's side.
But even if that plan works, and programs like the satirical puppet show, Kukly, which poked weekly fun at the Russian government, do return to the air, TV6 does not enjoy national coverage and may never command the influence of NTV. It was that influence, derived from the network's unstinting coverage of the first war in the breakaway region of Chechnya, that made NTV such a potent political force.
Nevertheless, both the Russian government and Gazprom deny that this weekend's events have anything to do with politics. They maintain it's simply a business affair that reflects the normal workings of the free market in Russia. Boris Jordan is now running NTV on behalf of Gazprom, the state- run utility that offered to underwrite the television network's loans in the late 1990s. Those loans enabled NTV to weather Russia's financial storms, but when Gazprom called them in earlier this year -- claiming NTV's finances were in turmoil and that the money was being frittered away on corporate yachts and luxury housing-- it threw the network's future into doubt.
Last week, Mr. Jordan, an American of Russian descent who's worked in Moscow for nearly a decade, maintained that Gazprom sought a civilized outcome to the standoff. Today in Moscow, Mr. Jordan told the NewsHour he changed his mind because he heard on Friday that the staff were stripping NTV of its assets.
BORIS JORDAN: The company owes money to everyone on the planet. It owes money to its employees, it owes money to its producers, it owes money to banks, it owes money to everyone. The company has not been paying its debts. It's got current debts outstanding of over $100 million.
SIMON MARKS: Mr. Jordan insists that he will preserve NTV as a free voice in Russia and that there will be no change in editorial policy.
BORIS JORDAN: Maybe this is an ambitious goal, but I would like NTV to look like ABC, NBC, CBS or Fox. That would be my goal. A real national network of independent broadcasting, independent journalism, with professional product. It's an ambitious goal, but it is one I am certainly going to try and do.
SIMON MARKS: But many liberals in Moscow believe that the managers appointed by Gazprom, like the government to which the utility reports, cannot be trusted to make good on their word. The Russian government has had virtually nothing to say about the weekend's events. President Putin was making a visit to the breakaway region of Chechnya when the drama unfolded in Moscow. Last week, after talks with German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, the Russian insisted NTV's future was nothing to do with him.
YEVGENY KISELEV: It's clear as bright sky to everyone in this country that this is a political situation. And those who are saying it has nothing to do with politics, its just business - well -- let it stay on their conscience.
SIMON MARKS: At NTV's headquarters tonight, the remaining publicity photographs of the network's former stars were being unceremoniously removed from the walls by the station's new managers. The network that changed the face of Russian television is still on the air, but many observers will be watching to see whether the final credits are rolling on its pugnacious, groundbreaking programming.