As 2001 came to a close, TV-6, Russia’s only remaining large independent national television network, won what amounts to a stay of execution. On December 29, the Federal Arbitration Court of the Moscow District overturned a November decision by the Moscow Arbitration Court liquidating TV-6’s parent company, the Moscow Independent Broadcasting Corporation (MNVK). That decision had been made in response to a suit brought by Lukoil-Garant, the pension fund of Lukoil, Russia’s largest oil company, which alleged that TV-6 had been mismanaged and was essentially bankrupt. Lukoil-Garant owns 15 percent of MNVK, and Boris Berezovsky, the self-exiled Russian oligarch, owns 75 percent.
This latest court decision, however, does not mean that TV-6 is off the hook, given that the Federal Arbitration Court also ordered that the case be sent back to the Moscow Arbitration Court for further consideration. On the one hand, a provision of the law “On joint stock companies” permitting the liquidation of loss-making enterprises, which provided the basis for Lukoil-Garant’s suit against TV-6 parent company, expired as of January 1, 2002. On the other, there are apparently “a mass of other laws” that could provide the basis for TV-6’s liquidation, as an unnamed Lukoil-Garant representative put it a short time before the Federal Arbitration Court rendered its verdict (Gazeta.ru, December 28). Indeed, members of TV-6’s management team–who, along with Berezovsky, have insisted that the legal proceedings against the channel are part of a Kremlin-inspired campaign to stifle independent media in Russia–warned that the December 29 court decision would not mean an end to the station’s travails. Aleksandr Berezin, TV-6’s deputy acting director, cited the case of Grigory Pasko, the military journalist who was sentenced to four years in prison on December 25 after being found guilty of gathering information on secret military exercises with the intention of passing it on to Japanese journalists. Pasko had earlier been acquitted of treason and espionage, after which he was convicted on a charge of improper military conduct, sentenced to three years imprisonment but immediately amnestied. Berezin indicated that Pasko’s experience was one reason the TV-6 team had not succumbed to “euphoria” over the court decision in favor of the channel (NTV.ru, December 29; Washington Post, December 25; Moscow Times, November 22, 2000).
Among those who have spoken out in TV-6’s defense is the U.S. ambassador to Russia, Alexander Vershbow. Prior to the December 29 court decision, he said that “an independent television channel must remain on the air” and quoted U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell as having “expressed the concern shared by many American citizens, starting with the president, that the TV-6 case represents a threat to freedom of the press” in Russia (Gazeta.ru, December 28). Another TV-6 defender is Boris Yeltsin. During an interview aired December 29 on state television, the former Russian president praised TV-6’s “talented journalists” and said it would be impermissible to let the channel “fall apart” (RTR, December 29).
Meanwhile, Boris Berezovsky, who is currently based in London, reportedly held talks late last month with a representative of TPG Aurora, an investment fund that reportedly wants to buy Berezovsky’s 75-percent stake in MNVK, TV-6’s parent company. TPG Aurora is part of the Pacific Group, a San Francisco-based private equity group, and Max Scherbakov, managing director of TPG Aurora in Moscow, told the Wall Street Journal that while the gap between Berezovsky’s selling price and what the fund was willing to pay “seems too wide to bridge,” talks would continue (Wall Street Journal, December 31). Last month, following the November decision by the Moscow Arbitration Court ordering TV-6’s liquidation, Berezovsky announced that he would hand over the 75-percent stake to TV-6’s team of journalists, headed by Yevgeny Kiselev, the station’s general director, and that it would be up to them to decide whether to sell the shares to TPG Aurora (see the Monitor, December 17). While TPG Aurora has already invested in two Russian media properties, MTV Rossiya and Russkoe Radio, the Lenta.ru website reported last month that the investment fund had no intention of holding onto a controlling stake in TV-6’s parent company if it managed to purchase it, but would immediately re-sell it to an unnamed Russian financial-industrial group. According to the website, Mikhail Lesin, Russia’s press minister, is representing the interests of the financial-industrial group in its negotiations with TPG Aurora (Lenta.ru, December 18).
If the Lenta.ru report turns out to be accurate, it would not be the first time that Russia’s press minister had involved himself in putatively private business deals. In 2000, Lesin affixed his signature to a deal in which Vladimir Gusinsky agreed to sell his Media-Most group to the Gazprom natural gas monopoly for US$300 million cash and forgiveness of US$473 million in debt. Gusinsky, who was the target of various criminal investigations and briefly jailed in June 2000, later renounced the agreement, saying that he had signed it under duress (see the Monitor, September 20-21, 2000). Gusinsky was later forced into exile ahead of an arrest warrant on fraud charges, while Media-Most’s main outlets, including the NTV television network, were either closed or taken over by Gazprom-appointed management teams.
CENTRAL ASIAN COUNTRIES WILLING TO HOST MORE WESTERN FORCES.