A standoff is quickly escalating over the fate of NTV, Russia's last independent nationwide television network.
At stake, say NTV journalists and their supporters, are not only hard-won press freedoms, but freedom for all Russians.
"The strategy is to fight," says station news director Gregory Kritchevsky.
Managers at the station, whose coverage was often critical of the government, were fired on Tuesday in what Mr. Kritchevsky describes as an illegitimate shareholders' meeting called by the state-run natural-gas giant Gazprom.
Police have declared the growing rally outside NTV's Ostankino offices, in northwest Moscow, illegal. A police attempt to enter the building at midday yesterday was repulsed.
"We are witnessing the final stage of the state monopolization of the media," says Pavel Gutionov, secretary of the Union of Russian Journalists.
"The authorities want to stifle all critical voices and ensure that only official information goes into the formation of public opinion. Therefore, NTV is the last bastion of Russia's free media. As it goes, so goes the country," he says.
Call for more protests
The union has called a mass protest on Red Square for Saturday. A similar rally in Pushkin Square last weekend drew some 10,000 to 20,000 demonstrators.
The studios have been the scene of barricades and battles more than once over the past decade as various political factions struggled to control the facility, the chief broadcasting portal to the nation's 146 million people.
Dozens died amid gun battles here in October 1993, when former President Boris Yeltsin squared off against his opponents in parliament. Journalists defending NTV today eschew any use of force, but insist the issue is the same: the fate of freedom in Russia.
The real goal: NTV parent
The current conflict has been brewing for more than year, as Gazprom maneuvered, with the backing of Russian courts and police, to seize control of Media Most, NTV's parent company.
The moves have involved two arrests of NTV-founder Vladimir Gusinsky - whom Russia is trying to extradite from Spain to face charges of embezzlement - and no fewer than 28 armed-police raids on Media Most's Moscow headquarters.
The key issue is a disputed 19 percent share packet, representing the balance of power in Media Most, which Mr. Gusinsky put up as collateral for a $262 million loan guaranteed by Gazprom three years ago. Declaring Most in default of the debt - which does not come due until June - Gazprom tried, but failed, to seize control of the share packet through courts in Moscow, London, and Gibraltar. The shares have been frozen pending resolution of the dispute.
Apparently losing patience with the protracted legal battle, Gazprom declared itself the majority shareholder. Without the share packet, Gazprom and its allies own 50.4 percent of Media Most. And a shareholders meeting called at Gazprom's Moscow headquarters on Tuesday named a new board of directors for NTV. It is headed by Gazprom's media chief Alfred Kokh, who was fired from his job as head of the State Property Department due to corruption allegations - reported by NTV.
Boris Jordan, an American financier of Russian descent, heavily mixed up in controversial Yeltsin-era privatizations, was named NTV general director.
Though the shareholders meeting was banned as illegal by two Russian courts, Gazprom presented sworn statements by both judges retracting their previous decisions.
"It is clear there was pressure from above, from the Kremlin, to make courts change their minds like that," says Sergei Grigoryants, chairman of the Glasnost Foundation, an independent media watchdog based in Moscow. "Courts in Russia do not always speak for the law."
The Kremlin has repeatedly denied any role in the struggle over NTV, and insisted Media Most's troubles are normal for any heavily indebted company. Mr. Jordan sounded the same theme in a statement on Wednesday. "Today, NTV is facing a financial crisis," he said. "My first priority is to stabilize the situation and return the company to a position of financial independence. This will allow us to ensure NTV enjoys the editorial independence that has become its trademark."
In another country, this might indeed look like a struggle for business control. But analysts say President Putin stands behind the campaign to seize NTV, the only remaining nationwide broadcaster not under state control. Two other main networks, ORT and RTR, are government-run. "There is no doubt that the Kremlin is orchestrating all this," says Andrei Piontkovsky, director of the Center for Strategic Studies in Moscow. "The goal is to impose the state ideology on all major media outlets."
Journalists and protesters at NTV's headquarters on Wednesday were equally certain. "This is purely a political issue, and [the takeover] comes from Mr. Putin," says news director Kritchevsky. "We will stay on air, we will broadcast our news every two hours - and more if necessary."
It will be "impossible" to work under the new managers, he says. The journalists union, meanwhile, is starting a defense fund for NTV workers. "We know a lot of fine journalists are going to be getting pink slips from Gazprom, and in Russia that means they will be blacklisted as well," says Mr. Gutionov, the union official. "We will have to find ways to help them support their families through this struggle."
If NTV journalists lose, Kritchevsky says, "Russia might be another country." He adds that Putin's state-of-the-nation address on Tuesday - in which the former KGB agent spoke of "citizen's rights" and the state's need to rekindle the "trust" of the people - was hot air.
"He spoke beautifully, but what did he do?" Kritchevsky asks. "Gazprom is a state-run company, and its relations with Putin are very tight."
A 'Soviet-style' mentality?
That view was expressed among the handful of supporters who gathered yesterday in front of NTV's offices, under a Russian flag attached to a stick, with a black mourning banner tied to the top.
"They are going to shut down NTV because during the last decade, our top officials were politically underdeveloped," says protester Lyudmilla Zagurskaya. "As a representative of the KGB, Putin is interested in installing his own people, with the same Soviet-style mentality."
She is here, she says, because the risks of failure will echo far into the future. "I want to live in a free Russia, and I want my children and grandchildren to live in a free Russia," Ms. Zagurskaya says. "That's why for me, this is that last battle to defend freedom of speech."
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor