Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 34

In another sign that the Kremlin is trying to exert control over Russia’s independent press, Rem Vyakhirev, head of Gazprom, Russia’s giant natural gas monopoly, made a veiled threat to use its investments in NTV television to pressure the channel to change its coverage of the Chechen war. Vyakhirev, whose company holds a 30-percent stake in NTV, said on February 15 that he did not view “the position of the NTV leadership on the issue of Chechnya entirely correct.” Vyakhirev called the armed forces’ action in Chechnya “absolutely appropriate in the existing circumstances,” and said that it was “simply inappropriate” to highlight “some negative aspects of their struggle against bandits.” Vyakhirev added that NTV’s coverage of the war gives Gazprom’s management serious reason “to think over where we invest funds and how we control their use–taking into account our interests, which, naturally, cannot contradict the interests of the state” (Russian agencies, February 15). NTV is part of the Media-Most holding, which was founded by the tycoon Vladimir Gusinsky, who remains its main owner.

NTV, unlike Russia’s two other main television channels, the 51-percent state-owned Russian Public Television (ORT) and the fully state-owned channel RTR, had featured reports questioning official casualty figures among Russian servicemen fighting in Chechnya and describing the plight of civilians in the war. Acting President Vladimir Putin said last week that the government and the media should “prevent the promotion of the thesis about excess casualties, which would damage society’s morale” (Moscow Times, February 16). In January, Putin appointed a defector from NTV, Oleg Dobrodeev, as head of VGTRK, the state media holding which includes RTR television. Dobrodeev, a co-founder of NTV, reportedly left the channel on the basis of disagreements with Gusinsky over how to cover Chechnya.

Gazprom not only owns 30 percent of NTV, but has been in negotiations with the television station to purchase another packet of shares–representing anywhere from an additional 5 percent to 13 percent of NTV’s equity, according to various estimates. In addition, Gazprom has reportedly extended loans and credits to NTV. According to reports in ORT and other media controlled by Boris Berezovsky (the pro-Kremlin tycoon hostile to Gusinsky and Media-Most), NTV and its parent company have debts ranging from US$830 million to US$1 billion, owed mostly to Gazprom and state institutions like Vneshekonombank and Sberbank. The state holds a 38-percent stake in Gazprom (Moscow Times, Vremya-MN, February 16; see also the Monitor, November 18, 1999). Thus NTV and Media-Most are highly vulnerable to financial pressure from the Kremlin. Indeed, last year, in the run-up to the December parliamentary elections, Most-Media–whose various outlets provided extended coverage of Kremlin corruption scandals while more favorably covering such Kremlin opponents as Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov and former Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov–charged that Kremlin administration chief Aleksandr Voloshin, a Berezovsky ally, was behind a tax police raid on the offices of Seven Days, Media-Most’s publishing house.

While NTV representatives refused to comment on Vyakhirev’s demarche concerning Chechnya coverage, an anonymous Media-Most official told The Moscow Times that he believed that the Gazprom chief, whom the Kremlin reportedly has long wanted to remove as the gas monopoly’s chairman, was simply making a pro forma attempt to curry favor with the government by distancing himself from NTV. Several newspapers yesterday, however, suggested such an interpretation was wishful thinking, and that Gazprom’s real feelings about NTV might be demonstrated in March, when Media-Most has to pay back a loan made by the bank CS First Boston under a Gazprom guarantee (Moscow Times, Vremya-MN, February 16).