Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 147

Details remain sketchy about the events surrounding the decision by the Prosecutor General’s Office to drop criminal charges against Media-Most head Vladimir Gusinsky. The media magnate flew to Spain yesterday amid contradictory reports about whether prosecutors had not only dropped the charges, but also closed the criminal case against him. Gusinsky was under investigation for allegedly embezzling US$10 million in state funds from the St. Petersburg firm Russkoye Video. Sources in the Prosecutor General’s Office continued to insist that the Russkoye Video case remained open, but the office confirmed late yesterday that those charges had been dropped (Russian agencies, July 27).

The key question is whether Gusinsky’s release was the result of a deal with the authorities and, if so, what concessions, if any, the media magnate made to secure his freedom. According to one rumor, Gusinsky agreed to tone down Media-Most’s criticism of the Kremlin. According to another, Gusinsky agreed to sell a large stake in Media-Most to Gazprom, the natural gas monopoly. According to one estimate, Gazprom controls at least 48.3 percent of Media-Most, mainly as collateral for two loans it made to the media holding, worth a total of US$381 million (Moscow Times, July 28). According to another estimate, Gazprom actually controls nearly 54 percent of Media-Most–14.3 percent directly and another 40 percent as collateral for the loans. At the same time, Dmitri Medvedev, first deputy head of the Kremlin administration and a close associate of President Vladimir Putin, recently became the head of Gazprom’s board of directors (Nezavisimaya gazeta, July 28). Alfred Kokh, head of Gazprom-Media said earlier this week that Gazprom was negotiating with Media-Most for the transfer of a package of shares as payment for the loans. Thus, according to this scenario, transfer of the Media-Most shares to Gazprom became a condition for Gusinsky’s freedom. Media-Most spokesman Dmitri Ostalsky would not comment on the rumors that a deal had been struck, saying only that Media-Most’s journalists would continue to work “according to their principles of free journalism,” while Itogi magazine chief editor Sergei Parkhomenko denied any knowledge of such a deal. Likewise, a high-placed government official was quoted as denying that there was any deal between Gusinsky and the authorities (Vedomosti, Moscow Times, July 28; Russian agencies, July 26).

On the other hand, Media-Most’s outlets, including the newspaper Segodnya and NTV television, have given scant coverage to the news that the case against Gusinsky has been dropped, reinforcing the sense that the media magnate indeed cut a deal with the authorities. Perhaps the best test of this suspicion will be to watch “Itogi,” NTV television’s weekly news analysis program, to see if there is a change in tone and coverage over consecutive broadcasts. The program has been the most vocally critical of President Vladimir Putin and Kremlin policies in general.