MOSCOW, April 16 (JTA) – The weekend takeover of Russia’s only independent, nationwide television channel by the state-owned natural gas monopoly Gazprom is being seen here as a crackdown on free speech.

The NTV channel had been the property of Vladimir Goussinsky, the former president of the Russian Jewish Congress – leading some Russian Jews, who flocked to demonstrations in Moscow protesting Gazprom’s “coup” against NTV, to worry that a crackdown on the Jewish community might also be in the offing.

“I don’t sympathize with the NTV fat cats, including Goussinsky,” said Yevgenia Krukovskaya, a Jewish university student.

“It is well-known that some of the top NTV people are former KGB officers,” Krukovskaya said in a downtown Moscow square full of NTV supporters, expressing a widespread belief. “But I am going to this demonstration because I understand that if they are closing down this independent channel, they are closing down the freedom of speech and democracy – and after that, as usual, they will crack down on the Jews.”

As if to support her misgivings, a group of middle-aged women a dozen steps from Krukovskaya carried posters reading “Close Down the Zhids’ TV Box” and “NTV People – Servants of Israel.”

An elderly man harangued passersby with the argument that Jews have plundered Russia and that NTV is a platform for Zionists.

Some of the thousands of pro-NTV demonstrators quickly tore down the anti-Semitic posters.

But the small group probably reflected the feelings of many thousands of Russians who viewed NTV as a mouthpiece of Russian Jewry.

Gazprom, NTV’s main creditor and shareholder, said it took over the station to improve the channel’s management and recoup some of the $200 million to $400 million it had lent NTV. Still, the move has been widely understood as having political connotations.

“There is much more here than a simple business deal gone bad,” said Mark Levin, the executive director of the Washington-based NCSJ: Advocates on Behalf of Jews in Russia, Ukraine, the Baltic States & Eurasia. “This clearly goes into the issue of whether the government is going to allow an independent voice in the media.”

NTV sharply criticized the Kremlin’s war against Muslim separatists in Chechnya, and during the last presidential election in 2000, it supported Vladimir Putin’s rival, liberal Grigory Yavlinsky.

Soon after Putin became president, the Kremlin launched its campaign against Goussinsky, who fled to Spain and is now fighting Russian attempts to extradite him to face embezzlement charges.

Sources say that if Moscow’s extradition efforts prove unsuccessful, Goussinsky will move to Israel, where he owns 25 percent of the Ma’ariv newspaper and has a substantial stake in the country’s mobile communications market.

He also is reportedly financing a new Russian-language Israeli TV channel, which could allow him to become a major player in Israel’s huge Russian community.

Some Jewish observers believe the takeover has dashed the hopes of Russian Jewry to become a major player in Russian politics.

Both Goussinsky and Boris Berezovsky, another Russian media tycoon with Jewish roots, had played such a role.

Unlike Berezovsky, who had himself baptized but never tried to hide his Jewish roots, Goussinsky took a leading role in the Jewish community.

Another Jewish umbrella group, the Federation of Jewish Communities of the Soviet Union, reportedly is considering entering the political fray. But sources say the federation’s political activities depend on the personal relationship between Israeli-based diamond tycoon Lev Levayev and Kremlin official Alexander Voloshin – and that Voloshin’s influence is weakening.

Meanwhile, the latest developments have brought long-time foes Berezovsky and Goussinsky closer. Many of the NTV journalists quit the station after the takeover and, with Goussinsky’s help, are trying to create a new independent channel at Berezovsky’s TV-6.

“We are very different people, although of the same ethnicity,” Berezovsky said. “But we managed to cut a deal and joined forces at a critical juncture.”

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