The NTV conflict and the split in society: the president remains above the fray, as usual


The NTV story has dominated the front pages for the past week. Reports of rallies in support of the journalists, analyses of the situation (sometimes diametrically opposed), open letters to each other by participants in the events, opinions of other journalists, business leaders, politicians and political analysts… Not even the president’s annual address has drawn so much media coverage – it has almost been forgotten in the swirl of passions over NTV.

By some inexplicable coincidence, the president delivered his address on the very same day that a shareholders’ meeting convened by Gazprom-Media voted to change the NTV board of directors; the new board immediately fired NTV chief executive Yevgeny Kiselev and appointed two people to replace him: Boris Jordan as chief executive, and Vladimir Kulistikov as editorial manager. In the same issue as its initial report about the change of management at NTV, the Kommersant newspaper published a transcript of a televised meeting between NTV journalists and Media-Most owner Vladimir Gusinsky.

The head of Media-Most made some diverse and convincing comments.

When leading journalist Vladimir Kondratiev asked him to describe the worst-case scenario, Gusinsky said that at first the government “would attempt to show that all is well and nothing has changed”, that it’s business as usual at NTV. Then, after a month or two, it would start tightening the screws, “gradually squeezing out and picking off those who are unsuitable”.

Gusinsky noted that he isn’t inclined to harbor illusions, so he doesn’t believe that “every single person among the thousand staff at NTV will take a stand on principle. Some will not… We understand that it’s up to the individual.”

On the other hand, Gusinsky said he doesn’t think the situation is hopeless, primarily because, as it turns out, “NTV has much more public support than we expected”. This is clear from all the rallies and community initiatives in support of the television station.

The next important point is that “the government is afraid to use force, as it’s doing in Chechnya. As long as they are afraid, we have to take advantage of this.” (Rather a radical comment, more along the lines of what Valeria Novodvorskaya might say.)

Overall, Gusinsky said, “your future and your reputations are in your own hands… If you have the strength of will to take a stand, you will win through; if not, you won’t.”

Gusinsky likewise suggested that “certain supplementary resources” shouldn’t be forgotten – like Boris Berezovsky, who had visited Gusinsky in a Spanish jail and offered his assistance. Neither of the former oligarchs revealed the details of this meeting, but the media soon found out they had spoken of joining efforts to create a huge new television network based on TV-6.

Gusinsky stressed that he sees no need to rush with these negotiations: “We’re bound to win. Damn it! I’m telling you. Just be strong.”

Gusinsky finished off with an experienced public speaker’s moving appeal to the audience: “All those who wanted to leave, or give in, or serve the regime have already left, given in, or started serving. And you remain – you who don’t wish to serve either the regime or Gusinsky. It’s not your job to express my opinion, or the opinion of the regime. You should express your own opinion… And believe me, we will do all we can to ensure you have the opportunity to do so.” The transcript shows that the audience responded to these final words with wild applause.

However, within a few days Kommersant published Leonid Parfenov’s now-famous open letter to Yevgeny Kiselev. Conflict had broken out within the NTV team.

“I can no longer tolerate having decisions made for me,” said Parfenov. “You’re doing all you can to provoke the state into using force, sending in the men in ski-masks. You’re using people as cannon fodder. I can’t stand listening to any more of your preaching in the journalists’ meeting room – those five-minute hate sessions – but I’m not permitted to stop attending them unless I quit.”

The emotional tone of Parfenov’s letter is the rule rather than an exception among articles concerned with the NTV scandal. For example, this is how Julia Kalinina expressed her feelings on this issue in Moskovsky Komsomolets: “Even after they brought back the Soviet national anthem, there was still a faint hope that our government views us as human beings. Following the destruction of NTV, there is no hope. We’re just cattle to them. Now we know for sure. The conclusive proof is in, the bridges are burned, the move can’t be withdrawn. So the next time the president says “We are with the people” – silently correct him. He’s not with the people. He’s with the cattle.”

Thus, Gusinsky’s fears that not all the “thousand staff at NTV” would act in the same way turned out to be justified. After Parfenov, Tatiana Mitkova was the next to quit; without any open letters or dramatic statements (rumors immediately started that she might be appointed editorial manager by the new executive team at NTV).

A day later, Kiselev replied to Parfenov, likewise in Kommersant.

Essentially, he didn’t address the issues – instead, he got personal: “I would be more inclined to accept your position if I didn’t know, if I hadn’t seen with my own eyes, how you’ve been in a dither ever since being invited to join the new “Gazprom-style” board of directors – how incoherently you explained your attitude to this offer, and how obviously disinclined you were to refuse it.”

Media reports confirm that Parfenov had been telling everyone how he had approached all his colleagues after receiving the offer of a place on the board, asking them if they would allow him to represent their interests – and when they said no, he refused the offer. Kiselev says Parfenov “took offense” at that. Kiselev points out that Parfenov has a record of being a prima donna, but NTV has always tolerated his behavior: “Like many of our colleagues, I accepted you for what you were – for the sake of your talent, we were prepared to overlook the downside of your arrogant individualism.”

But even Parfenov’s talent is questioned in Kiselev’s reply. According to Kiselev, Parfenov’s accusations of journalists being used as “cannon fodder” are an insult to those whom he is trying to defend, since he is denying their ability to think for themselves. Kiselev points out: “These journalists learned to present live reports from war zones, speaking calmly and professionally even under fire. Pardon my bluntness, but this is an entirely different level of skill from what’s required to record the 38th take of commentary from the grounds of a palace.”

Kiselev also accuses his former colleague of being a poseur, and of “petty betrayal at a difficult moment”.

But Vitalii Tretiakov, editor-in-chief of Nezavisimaya Gazeta, had predicted right from the start of the scandal over Kiselev’s dismissal and the subsequent protest by journalists that equal enthusiasm from all NTV staff could not be reasonably expected. Tretiakov wrote: “You can’t honestly ask everyone to do exactly the same thing. First of all, although this is a team, everyone still has their own views about the events.” Tretiakov’s main emphasis was on the great disparity between the circumstances of NTV owners and executives and those of ordinary staff.

Besides, “at NTV they like to say everyone’s a star – and maybe they believe it. But a famous name can only help those who really have one. Meanwhile, the 2,500 others will be on their own.”

Other periodicals reported something akin to “class consciousness” developing among NTV journalists as the conflict progressed. The Vremya Novostei newspaper quotes “an ordinary NTV employee”: “There are about ten or twelve people in charge. The rest of us are whispering in the offices. Some are worried about the loans they’ve been granted by the company; maybe the new managment will demand repayment. Some are afraid of losing their jobs. At one point, Marianna Maximovskaya called out, ‘Raise your hands! Let them see how many of us there are!’ We raised our hands… But we don’t have the strength to keep fighting in defense of Yevgeny Kiselev’s wine cellar.”

The Vremya MN newspaper extends its condolences to NTV journalists: “Russia’s market economy, including its media industry, is still far from civilized standards. In any civilized nation, the journalists would have been included in at least negotiations, if not the deal itself.” But this can hardly be expected in Russia, so all the journalists can do is insist on the conflict being viewed as a clash between the regime and the independent media: “It’s one thing to be a pawn in a deal between tycoons, and quite another to become a casualty in the battle for democratic ideals.”

“What really smarts is that officials won’t face any consequences over this,” says Oleg Dobrodeev, former head of NTV and now head of RTR, in an interview with Kommersant. When asked if he thinks the whole story is just about fighting to save Yevgeny Kiselev’s job, Dobrodeev replied: “I’d put it differently – this is a battle over the manner of his departure. His departure ought to be impressive and memorable.”

The NTV drama has made a huge impact on the public. Dobrodeev thinks this is because of NTV’s reputation: “People really do love NTV. It has trained an entire generation of journalists… All the best in television today is NTV television.” Although the past year, noted Dobrodeev, has been a bad one for NTV; it’s dropped to third place in the ratings, losing over a quarter of its viewers. “What people are defending is NTV as it used to be.”

Dobrodeev was even more straightforward in his open letter to Yevgeny Kiselev (another open letter!) published in Izvestia. While acknowledging that open letters to Kiselev “are becoming a cliche”, Dobrodeev still thinks this is the only way he can communicate his opinion to Kiselev: “You avoid direct contacts or public debate about the catastrophe on the brink of which the company we created now stands. You and your hysterical helpers are preventing your subordinates from speaking out… But it’s high time you and I sorted things out.”

Dobrodeev recalls his departure in January 2000 – after “Gusinsky, Malashenko and yourself started squeezing me out of the company”. Back then, he says, protests were also planned – against Kiselev’s appointment. However, Dobrodeev notes, he managed to calm down the agitated journalists, then “simply resigned, out of consideration for the company’s reputation and the future of its staff”. Now Dobrodeev calls on Kiselev to do the same: “Think of your people. Rallying cries about teams and unity would only make sense if everyone involved in the current events really did face the same fate and the same future.” But that is not the case: “The magnate’s plane or yacht will carry some people off to a better place; while others will be left among the ashes of the fire kindled for that purpose. We know perfectly well who is facing which future.”

Dobrodeev also considers that NTV’s independence is fundamentally questionable: “You and I both know the company was not only Gusinsky’s, but also the Kremlin’s, right from the start.” Borodin and Tarpishchev pushed for the broadcasting license to be issued. NTV played an active role in the 1996 presidential campaign; moreover, “many of Boris Yeltsin’s memorable radio addresses in summer 1997” wer written by NTV journalists. Not surprisingly, says Dobrodeev, participation in the Kremlin’s plans translated into real money: “those loans from Gazprom”. And the loans, in turn, translated into editorial policy: “By watching the ‘Itogi’ current affairs program, regional leaders could infallibly discern the Kremlin’s policies.” However, being “at the side of the regime” soon turned out to be insufficient for the owner of Media-Most: “At some point, Gusinsky started thinking of himself as the regime – and then the problems started, problems which always have the same outcome.”

Thus, Dobrodeev virtually acknowledges the main point being made by NTV’s supporters – that the conflict is politically motivated. Yevgenia Albats, in Novaya Gazeta, says “neither business nor financial issues are a priority or goals in themselves” for those who are trying to break the resistance of Kiselev’s team.

This is what Yevgenia Albats has to say about the decisions of the new board of directors: “The appointment of a failed investor, an unsuccessful crisis manager, a chief executive who doesn’t understand finance, and an editorial manager who’s dependent on the Kremlin and in conflict with the editorial team – all this can have only one goal: to bankrupt the company and destroy the oppositionist team of journalists.” Albats thinks it is no coincidence that the “scandalous shareholders’ meeting” and President Putin’s address to parliament took place on the same day.

The president chose to deliver a liberal market address, “which of course was meant to draw a strong response from the Communists and imperial apologists.” Therefore, “according to the conspiracy theory and techniques of provocation” used by professionals and familiar to Putin, his next move had to involve “measures to blot out his liberal words with harsh actions”. Like a Russian version of Pinochet.

However, according to sources cited by Albats, the motivations of the Kremlin’s political consultants – undeterred by the possibility of a scandal on the day of the presidential address – actually turned out to be much more straightforward. “They simply decided not to worry about it; everything would turn out fine.”

How could they have miscalculated so badly? Albats believes it was inevitable: “They consider ‘management’ to be synonymous with ‘information’… However, having smothered the opposition media, listening only to those media which say whatever the Kremlin orders them to say, the people behind the Kremlin walls have lost touch with reality.”

The Kremlin thinks reality is the president’s popularity rating. But this rating is only one border of reality. “Over the past year, while those behind the Kremlin walls have been congratulating themselves about how well everything is working out, an opposition has come into being.” Unlike those who declare their love for Putin – “one of our own boys” – this opposition has something to say. “And the more effort the Kremlin makes to crush the media, the more people there will be who don’t want to go back to hushed conversations in the kitchens.”

Yevgenia Albats believes Putin will face an inevitable choice: “the path of Belarus, mixed in with Latin America’s experience” – or an understanding that it’s impossible to have a market economy without democracy.

Valerii Yakov says in the Novye Izevestia newspaper that the NTV conflict has split the Kremlin more than anything else.

Gleb Pavlovsky’s team is recommending a way to resolve the conflict that may be termed as the use of force. “The president has already authorized an attack on NTV once; he should remain silent, refrain from intervening, and continue to view the matter as a conflict of property rights.” Thus, under the cover of this official version, “the new management team, rather notorious, handpicked by the Kremlin to take over – can complete the purge of NTV.”

There is also another option: Putin has a chance to “finally prove himself to be a wise leader, who is concerned about freedom of speech”. In order to do this, he should “send the temporarily hired and unconditionally obedient Alfred Koch and Boris Jordan to the courts to resolve their dispute with the owners of the Media-Most holding there.” On the other hand, Putin should give his support to the NTV journalists in their concern about freedom of speech, as well as guarantee this freedom to them.

At the same time, Novye Izvestia predicts that the NTV journalists “will owe the Kremlin, which helped them in their hour of need.” Thus, the major goal of the Kremlin political consultants, who want to gain control over the media, will be achieved.

However, Yakov considers that there is not only the issue of “whom to support – the Kremlin political consultants or the independent NTV journalists”, but also what the meaning of journalism is.

According to Yakov, there are three categories of journalists in Russia. The first category doesn’t mind obeying the state. The journalists of the second category have to take into consideration the opinion of media owners: “They also have to serve, though there’s not as much grovelling as to the state” (this may well be disputed). And finally the third category, “the most principled and least numerous”: those who “still remember the public interest and their professional duty to inform the public objectively and without bias”.

So, having described the ideal journalist, Valery Yakov suggests his colleagues should make their choice.

The Obshchaya Gazeta paper entitled its article about the consequences of the NTV crisis for society “A Test of Decency”. The people, ordinary TV viewers, who have rallied so many times lately in support of NTV, have passed that test. Despite all apprehensions among the defenders of free speech, “there are many normal, decent, and courageous people in our society.”

At the same time, Obshchaya Gazeta considers things are much more complicated with “the spiritual and intellectual elite”. Judging by the reaction of some other media outlets, “the era of internal censorship has returned for many of our colleagues, when the joy of following and conveying the general line is so great that it becomes self-sufficient, it needs neither additional praise nor punishment for deviation from the course.”

Obshchaya Gazeta considers the main reason for the elite’s degradation to be the political style of the past decade, especially the last two years. “In order to rise to the top in the elite, a person has to pass through a filter of toadying and baseness, hypocrisy and betrayal.” For instance, in order to become the interior minister, you should keep repeating that you’re ready to jump out the window if your bosses say the word. In order to become the lead anchor at the largest state-controlled TV network, it is necessary to “sling mud at your colleagues over at the network which gave you your start.” In order to become the nation’s top political analyst, “you should change your views and assessments so often that nobody will be able to say you have any at all”.

According to Obshchaya Gazeta, the main change in Russian society over this time is that “one’s ‘reputation’, as a social institution, has ceased to play any role whatsoever in public life”. That is why “where there ought to be a Leo Tolstoy, we have Gleb Pavlovsky – and that says a great deal.”

The NTV scandal caused an unexpected split even among Russian liberals. According to the Vremya Novostei paper, only Grigory Yavlinsky is “recklessly supporting the rebels”. Boris Nemtsov is supporting them with some reservations; Anatoly Chubais, who has kept silent for so long, is supporting Alfred Koch. According to Chubais, “Gazprom” is acting very “tactfully, trying not to infringe on people’s dignity and the unique NTV team; though, having the court decision, it could have been much tougher.”

Yegor Gaidar said in his interview with the Novoe Vremya magazine that “there is still freedom of speech in Russia”; however, there is no assurance that this situation will not change in the near future. Gaidar agrees that “NTV is primarily a financial issue”, and that “there is a problem of bad management, there are obviously political debts.”

At the same time, according to Gaidar, “it has always been a funny combination: tycoons, the media they own, and freedom of speech”. It is clear that the tycoons are interested in preserving the current situation. At the same time Gaidar stressed he is not sure if the people from the Kremlin are seeking the same. In any case, according to Gaidar, “in the situation with NTV both sides are saying opposite things but are playing by the same rules”.

Overall, Gaidar thinks that media freedom is primarily a financial issue and the only way to resolve it is to pass a law on advertising that would allow the media to be independent: “Either you are prepared for the media to exist at the expense of the state, and then you should not complain that they are living at the expense of the state; or you are ready to allow the media to exist at the expense of the tycoons, but then you should not complain that they are living at the expense of the tycoons; or you are ready to allow the media to live at the expense of the news racket, but then you should not complain that they are living at the expense of the news racket…” An alternative way, which leads to real independence, lies in advertising revenue; the advertising industry should be “cherished and cared for” – and this concerns the Russian legislators.

Of course, Boris Berezovsky could not pass up the chance to discuss the NTV scandal. He wrote a small article in the Kommersant paper, where he did not miss anyone: “A person named Dobrodeev wrote a denunciation; main reformer Anatoly Chubais supports the Chechen war and is trying to nationalize the private NTV company with his comrade Alfred Koch; in order to increase the patriotic spirit of Russians, it has been proposed to replace Russian citizen Kiselev, CEO of the NTV television network, with US citizen Jordan…” “The smart versus the smart” in Russia, trying to jointly destroy what they have been building over the last ten years.

Meanwhile, the conflict around the NTV company is far from over – on the contrary, according to Nezavisimaya Gazeta, “it is becoming more and more heated”.

Here are some titles of the latest articles: “If Parfenov is a Traitor, Dibrov Should Go to Kashchenko” (Komsomolskaya Pravda); “After NTV: Neither the Nation nor the Company Will Be The Same” (Segodnya); “Journalists Are Leaving NTV” (Nezavisimaya Gazeta); “A Three-Letter Drama” (Moskovsky Komsomolets).

Judging by the growing bitterness of both sides, it is not ruled out that President Vladimir Putin, who declared that the courts ought to make the final decision on the legality of the new management, might have to participate in settling the conflict. At least, NTV is expecting him to.

According to a “source close to NTV executives” (Vedomosti), they are “convinced that from the very beginning Putin understood that what is going on and what the goal was, and he has deliberately not intervened.” NTV is not surprised by Putin’s words to Mikhail Gorbachev, who heads the NTV public council. NTV said: “We also believe that the courts should decide the matter. But we were still hoping that the president, as the guarantor of the constitution, would help resolve it.”

The conflict is still going on. As Yevgeny Yasin said in his interview with Nezavisimaya Gazeta, the authorities should have understood long ago that the public views this conflict as political; as a issue of freedom of speech. And that is why it would be better if the authorities yielded this time: “It would not be a loss, but a victory. It would be proof that President Putin indeed wants to protect freedom of speech and the principles of democracy.”