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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Gazprom Demands Turnover of NTV Affairs to New Management

The two companies dueling over control of Russia's only nationwide independent television network held their first public talks Thursday and grudgingly agreed to create a commission to try to settle their differences.

The heated discussion at NTV's frenetic studios largely eclipsed the journalists' excitement over U.S. media mogul Ted Turner's announcement that he would step into the struggle between NTV's journalists and state-connected gas giant Gazprom by buying into the station.

Thursday's talks, at times shown on closed-circuit television in the studios, were often little more than a shouting match between disputed new chairman Alfred Kokh and ousted director Yevgeny Kiselyov. Looking weary, the two emerged separately and said they had agreed to create a commission of up to 10 people from both sides to decide the fate of the station's leadership.

It was the first sign of progress in the three-day standoff over control of NTV, though neither side seemed pleased with the decision. Both sides vowed earlier Thursday not to back down.

Months of struggle for the influential station came to a head at an NTV shareholders' meeting Tuesday convened by Gazprom - NTV's largest creditor - and deemed illegal by NTV's journalists.

The meeting ousted NTV's leadership in a move Gazprom said was prompted by NTV's financial problems and the probability that the network would never make good on its $127 million in debts. Kokh and the new Gazprom-picked director, American banker Boris Jordan, have pledged to protect NTV's editorial independence.

But the rebellious NTV journalists insist the takeover was orchestrated by the Kremlin and was intended to shut down the only nationwide network that has consistently reported critically on problems ranging from the wars in Chechnya to rampant corruption.

"I'm satisfied at least we started a dialogue," Kokh said after Thursday's meeting. The conciliatory commission was to meet Friday at the headquarters of NTV's parent company, Media-Most.

But NTV journalists appeared pessimistic that the commission would be able to guarantee their independence.

"They could stop giving us money for trips to Chechnya and it won't be called political censorship, but a financial move," said NTV anchor Marianna Maximovskaya, who took part in the talks.

Meanwhile, the journalists settled back into their regular programming Thursday after a daylong protest of just news broadcasts - but reports on their own predicament continued to dominate their news.

Despite warning that they would bar Kokh entrance to the building, he was allowed in peacefully. Still, he was bombarded with questions by a huge crowd when he stepped off the elevator at NTV's offices.

Jordan, the new director, rebuffed NTV's calls for a three-month time-out in the conflict on Thursday and demanded his predecessor hand over control of the company's affairs.

Representatives of Jordan arrived at the station's offices earlier Thursday to talk to Kiselyov, and after a lengthy argument broadcast live over NTV, the men were eventually allowed inside.

Jordan claimed in an interview on state-controlled ORT television Thursday that he was in talks with several NTV journalists privately, but that most were too afraid of open meetings.

U.S. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher expressed support for NTV on Thursday, saying it "played an important role in the development of political and media pluralism in Russia. ... It is important that the NTV editorial staff continue to exercise full control over news and information programming."

He also welcomed Turner's interest in the station.

But while NTV journalists look to Turner to safeguard their independence, he would hold only about 30 percent of shares, which he said Wednesday he plans to purchase from NTV founder Vladimir Gusinsky. And Kokh was unenthusiastic Thursday about Turner's involvement.

Gusinsky is one of several well-connected tycoons who amassed fortunes in shady privatization deals in the 1990s. Russian prosecutors want him extradited from Spain to face charges that he overstated his Media-Most holding company's assets to win loan guarantees from Gazprom.

Jordan, Kokh and many other so-called oligarchs were involved in disputed privatization deals of state assets in the 1990s, and Gusinsky claims he has been singled out for political reasons.