MOSCOW — Russia's most combative TV news personality, Sergei Dorenko, right-hand man to media tycoon Boris A. Berezovsky, was abruptly dropped from the national ORT network Saturday evening, a sign that the Kremlin is gaining the upper hand in a struggle for control of the network.
Claiming 40 million viewers, Dorenko, an unrivaled master of the political smear campaign, dispatched his targets with ruthless glee, but Saturday he suddenly discovered what it was like to be a political victim.
Dorenko, who is also ORT's deputy general director, claimed that the network's general director, Konstantin Ernst, had informed him that the decision to drop his weekly political program came from the Kremlin.
Blaming President Vladimir V. Putin for interfering, Dorenko said his show was taken off the air less than two weeks after Putin summoned him to the Kremlin and pressed him to start promoting the president's political cause on ORT.
"He proposed I should join his team and become a member of his team and solve all the political issues with him. But I told him: 'Vladimir Vladimirovich, I'm really sorry. I am a member of the team of TV viewers, and I'm working for them,' " Dorenko said in a telephone interview late Saturday, striking the unlikely pose of a fearless and principled crusader.
ORT, the country's biggest network, is 51% state-owned, but until the present struggle, it was controlled by Berezovsky through his 49% stake. Under former President Boris N. Yeltsin, Berezovsky was close to the Kremlin, but beginning in June the tycoon began publicly criticizing Putin, and ORT's tone toward the president became increasingly harsh as well.
The offer Dorenko claimed that Putin made would have come in the days after the president was savaged by the media, including ORT, for remaining on vacation while the navy fumbled the rescue effort of the sunken nuclear submarine Kursk.
In the interview, Dorenko painted a portrait of a president eager to have puppets in key media posts, claiming that in July and August the president had pressured him to work for his interests. No one was available at the Kremlin press service Saturday to respond to those claims.
Ironically, Dorenko was one of the key figures, along with Berezovsky, who helped propel Putin to power.
In the lead-up to parliamentary elections last December and the presidential election in March, Dorenko dished up buckets of political bile on his program, discrediting Putin's main rivals, Moscow Mayor Yuri M. Luzhkov and former Prime Minister Yevgeny M. Primakov, the latter of whom eventually dropped out of the race. For example, he once accused Luzhkov of murdering a U.S. businessman.
In those days, Dorenko made no apologies about his bias toward Putin, declaring that he was going to "handle him with care. I am going to blow every speck of dust off him."
Dorenko claimed Saturday that Putin met with him in January and thanked him for his support. The president also met with him in July, he said, soon after Dorenko had publicly supported the jailed chief of the independent Media Most network, Vladimir A. Gusinsky, who was charged with embezzlement but has since been freed and fled the country.
"After I said Gusinsky's arrest was an attack on freedom of speech, Putin said he did not understand what was going on. He told me we have to be on the same team. I told him I can't refrain from criticizing him as I criticized Primakov," Dorenko said.
Earlier Saturday, Putin supported press freedom during an interview on CNN, adopting a stance that Dorenko described as hypocritical given what he called Kremlin efforts at intimidation of the press.
"This is planned work, work that's been going on for some time," Dorenko said on Radio Echo of Moscow.
Dorenko is a swaggering, arrogant figure, a self-professed narcissist who has boasted about how much he enjoys flattery from men like Berezovsky.
With friends like the tycoon, Dorenko knew he had the gilded job security at ORT that good connections offer in Russia.
But when Berezovsky fell out with Putin over the summer, ORT's harsher line against the Kremlin made it inevitable that the regime would use the state's majority holding to reassert control.
Preparing for his TV show Saturday evening, Dorenko learned from Russia's Interfax news agency that the show had been abruptly dropped by the network. It was not clear whether the cancellation was temporary or permanent.
Dorenko did not even get a call from general director Ernst to give him the bad news, he said.
The show's removal is the first clear sign that the Kremlin is gaining the advantage in the battle to control ORT. Berezovsky claimed earlier last week that presidential aide Alexander S. Voloshin had told him he faced jail unless he handed his stake of the network over to the state.
Berezovsky announced Thursday that he would place his shares in trust with a group of journalists, including Dorenko, who would control his stake for four years, after which he would transfer 20% to them, assuming they were successful.
In comments reported on Russian news wires, Ernst claimed that Dorenko had refused a request not to discuss the issue of Berezovsky's stake on his program. But Dorenko accused his boss of lying to cover up for Putin.
"He [Ernst] told me that he had to resign himself to obeying the instructions of the Kremlin. He told me that generally he has nothing against me but he had to do it," Dorenko said.