Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 151

The Kremlin is reportedly negotiating with Boris Berezovsky to take back the 49-percent share in Russian Public Television (ORT) which the tycoon reportedly controls. A Russian newspaper reported that the state had decided to take back the minority share in ORT, which is 51-percent state-owned, in return for writing off its US$150 million in debts to the government. An anonymous high-level official in the Kremlin administration was quoted as saying that the transfer of ORT’s 49 percent stake would be carried out by this autumn. “I think it is the logical end of the story of Berezovsky at ORT,” the official was quoted as saying. ORT owes the government both US$100 million for a credit it received via the state’s Vneshekonombank and another US$50 million for the use of its signal and other payments. Given that the Press Ministry has assessed ORT’s value at US$300 million, this would mean that handing over the channel’s 49 percent private stake would almost exactly cover its debts to the state. The paper noted that in late June Berezovsky himself proposed transferring the 49 percent stake to the government. About the same time, ORT’s management demanded that state either begin financing the channel or sell its 51 percent stake to private owners (Russian agencies, August 1; Vedomosti, Moscow Times, August 2).

Berezovsky confirmed this week that negotiations are underway concerning the fate of ORT minority stake, but said in an interview published yesterday that what was under discussion was not the sale of the stake to the state, but simply its transfer to state management. He also said that it would be “absolutely impermissible” to allow the state to have control of Russia’s three main television channels–ORT, Media-Most’s NTV and RTR television, which is already state-owned. He might therefore reconsider handing over the 49-percent ORT stake (Vedomosti, August 2).

The events surrounding ORT suggest that Berezovsky, like Media-Most’s Vladimir Gusinsky, is falling victim to President Vladimir Putin’s campaign to clear the oligarchs from the halls of power. According to some observers, the Kremlin has gained additional leverage over Berezovsky thanks to the “half a ton” of documents related to the alleged embezzlement of hundreds of millions of dollars from the state airline Aeroflot that Nikolai Volkov, the investigator from the Prosecutor General’s Office, recently brought back from Switzerland (Segodnya, August 2). Other observers, however, question whether the sun is really setting on Berezovsky’s empire. The Gazeta.ru news analysis website cited yesterday various theories currently making the rounds, including one which holds that Berezovsky is planning “to leave ORT only to return to it”–meaning that he plans to control the officials who will be in charge of the channel once it returns to full state ownership. “People will also administer the combined packet of shares of the state and Berezovsky. And [Berezovsky] understands people” (Russian agencies, August 2).

In the meantime, Igor Shabdurasulov, a former Kremlin administration official and a close Berezovsky ally, has indicated that the various companies which hold the 49 percent private ORT stake, which Berezovsky is said to control, could end up handing the stake over, not to the state, but to a new Berezovsky media holding for management control. Berezovsky has named Shabdurasulov, who recently lost his post as a deputy Kremlin administration chief, to head this proposed new media conglomerate. In an interview published today, Shabdurasulov said the holding would be formed no earlier than two or three months from now. He said also that it would not necessarily include those media generally named as Berezovsky holdings: TV-6; Nashe Radio; the newspapers Kommersant, Nezavisimaya gazeta and Novye Izvestia; and the magazine Ogonek. Shabdurasulov did not indicate exactly which media were slated to become part of the new holding (Obshchaya gazeta, August 3). Kremlin sources have been quoted as saying categorically that ORT will not be part of Berezovsky’s new holding (Russian agencies, August 2).