Boris Berezovsky, the once mighty oligarch now in self-imposed exile, said yesterday that he would begin negotiations with Credit Suisse First Boston to purchase the US$262 million debt due in July which Vladimir Gusinsky’s embattled Media-Most group owes the investment bank. That credit was guaranteed by Gazprom, the natural gas monopoly which already owns 46 percent of NTV, Media-Most’s flagship television channel. Gazprom has sued Media-Most for control of a 19-percent stake in NTV that Media-Most put up as collateral for the US$262 million loan, arguing that Media-Most forfeited it by violating the terms of an agreement reached last November to pay off the media holding’s debts. A Moscow court has frozen that stake until it renders a verdict on ownership rights.
Berezovsky announced his intention to negotiate with CS First Boston over Media-Most’s debt in an open letter to the Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs, the group made up of Russia’s major business tycoons, in which he claimed that his aim was to protect free speech in Russia, “whose most important bearer is NTV.” Berezovsky asked his fellow oligarchs to join him in bailing out Media-Most and NTV in order to avoid “the mistake of the beginning of the 20th century” and suggested that without such a bailout the world could get “either Stalin or Hitler” once again. Two Western tycoons, CNN founder Ted Turner and financier George Soros, are part of a consortium which has promised US$300 million to bail out Media-Most, citing concerns over press freedom. The Kremlin, however, has refused to guarantee that it will not interfere in the media holding’s editorial policy. Yet another party, Sweden’s Modern Times Group, confirmed this week that it is seeking a stake in Media-Most. For his part, Berezovsky said that besides negotiating to buy out Media-Most’s US$262 million debt to CS First Boston, he would offer Gusinsky, his one-time archrival in Russia’s brutally competitive business/media world, up to US$50 million to cover Media-Most’s current operating expenses (Kommersant, Moscow Times, February 8; Russian agencies, February 7). Gusinsky, meanwhile, remains under house arrest in Spain, where he is waiting for a ruling on whether he will be extradited to Russia to face charges of large-scale fraud. Since falling out with President Vladimir Putin last year, Berezovsky has repeatedly accused the Russian head of state of authoritarianism and remade himself in the image of a human rights crusader, even contributing US$3 million to the Sakharov Museum, part of the foundation run by veteran human rights campaigner Yelena Bonner.
IS BEREZOVSKY’S LATEST DEMARCHE AN ATTEMPT TO TAKE OVER NTV?