The 112 million viewers who regularly tuned into the top-rated NTV television news show Namedni (The Other Day) were used to the show's anchor, Leonid Parfyonov, lambasting Russian President Vladimir Putin even mocking Putin's resemblance to Dobby the house elf from the Harry Potter movies. But Parfyonov's performance last week was uncharacteristically subdued, given that he had recently announced plans to end the program. Still, even if expected, the final sign-off came as a shock: "Namedni will not appear again ... Good luck." Namedni's demise means the end for NTV, once Russia's only private national television station. After a three-year fight, the network now finally passes into the hands of Putin allies. The house elf has got his revenge.
Launched in 1993 by the then powerful oligarch Vladimir Gusinsky as the flagship of his Media-Most holding, NTV helped Boris Yeltsin win re-election in July 1996 against seemingly impossible odds, and afterward enjoyed preferential treatment. NTV anchors got easy access to Kremlin insiders. Parfyonov, 43, became a star. His documentaries on Russian and Soviet history and culture were educational, entertaining and immensely popular. Namedni's informal style and Parfyonov's sharp tongue attracted a large audience.
But all that changed when Putin became President in March 2000. Although Putin had run a media-savvy campaign, NTV enraged the new regime by its support of his opponents. After the election, NTV kept up its harsh criticism of Putin's new war in Chechnya. It also lampooned him wickedly in Kukly (The Puppets), its popular satirical show. Kukly presented a touchy Putin as a crazed shrink, or an offstage presence referred to as Gospod Bog (Lord God) or just G.B., a pun on his past as a KGB officer. Another caricature "Little Zaches," a vicious dwarf who bewitched a city into regarding him as a wise ruler particularly infuriated Putin and his camp.
The ax fell in mid-2000, when Gusinsky was accused of embezzlement and arrested. He left the country and eventually was forced to sell his assets to Gazprom, the state-run natural-gas monopoly that would later use its security force to stage a dramatic on-air takeover of NTV. Parfyonov chose to stay rather than join colleagues who resigned in protest. Namedni has been NTV's main political news program since September 2001, and Parfyonov became the network's best-known face.
After the takeover, Gazprom brought in Boris Jordan, a U.S. citizen, to head both Gazprom-media and NTV. The 36-year-old New Yorker didn't have any media experience, but had worked as a manager and investment banker in Russia since the early 1990s, during which time he had made a name for himself among Russia's business and political élite.
Jordan made NTV behave for a while, and the sale of 49% of the company to Evrofinans bank put the network on a firmer financial footing. Still, says Yuri Shchekochikhin, deputy chair of the State Duma's Security Committee, "Putin realized that under Jordan, NTV oriented itself to the Union of Right Forces (URF)," the President's likely opponents in next year's elections.
According to Shchekochikhin, Putin feared that an unrestrained NTV could hurt his chances, especially after NTV's coverage of the Moscow theater siege last October. At one point during the crisis the Kremlin released film, without sound, of Putin conferring with security officials. Parfyonov hired a lip-reader to decipher what Putin was saying. The lip-reader's transcript suggested that the Kremlin planned to storm the theater soon after its seizure, despite claims by government officials of persistent attempts to negotiate a solution.
So, the ax fell once again Jordan left quietly, returning to his Sputnik investment business, while NTV will now be run by Nikolai Senkevich, 34, a physician until now best known in the media for a television show on an obscure regional channel and his article about hemorrhoids in a medical journal. "He is totally incompetent," is Parfyonov's judgment.
Parfyonov, who is still immensely popular, is being courted by other TV stations, "but he'll have to learn to watch his step and his mouth," says one Moscow newspaper editor. In September 2001, when Namedni ruled the airwaves, the newspaper Izvestia asked Parfyonov: "What if the views of those who are calling the shots do not coincide with yours?" Parfyonov answered, "Let's wait to get scared until the tiger comes out of the jungle." Well, it did, and it bites.