Media-Most founder Vladimir Gusinsky has said that he is ready to sell his stake in NTV, Media-Most’s main television channel, provided both that it is sold to “independent investors” and that there is a guarantee that there will be no deal with the Kremlin which would “call into question the independence of NTV or allow impositions.” Gusinsky, who remains under house arrest in Spain awaiting possible extradition to Russia on fraud charges, told the Spanish newspaper ABC that he was ready to pay the price of parting with NTV, which he created in the early 1990s, if it ensured that the channel remained independent (Moscow Times, NTV, February 19).
The timing of Gusinsky’s comments was interesting, given that Gazprom, Media-Most’s main creditor, held talks on February 15 with representatives of a consortium of potential investors in Media-Most led by CNN founder Ted Turner. After the consortium announced that it was interested in investing at least US$300 million in Media-Most, both Turner and another key member, George Soros, declared that preserving NTV’s independence was an investment condition. Soros even said that both he and Turner would drop their investment plans if Gazprom took control of NTV. Gazprom has publicly announced that it is seeking a majority stake in NTV and wants appoint a new board of directors for the channel. The natural gas giant currently controls 46 percent of NTV, and both Gazprom and Media-Most are contesting the ownership of another 19-percent stake of NTV in the courts. That representatives of Gazprom and the Turner-led consortium decided to hold talks could mean either that Gazprom has dropped its intention to take full control of NTV or that the Turner-led consortium has dropped its opposition to Gazprom taking full control of NTV. In any case, the newspaper Vedomosti reported today that the consortium is distancing itself from both “Gusinsky and his ‘struggle for freedom of speech.'” According to the paper, while Turner initially demanded a guarantee from President Vladimir Putin that the authorities will not interfere in NTV’s editorial policy, the members of the consortium have now come around to the view of Soros, who, according to the paper, has spoken of the need to “take Gusinsky out of the game” when it comes to NTV (Vedomosti, February 19).
While the meeting between the representatives of Gazprom and the Soros-led investment consortium apparently produced no concrete agreements, the Vedomosti report, if accurate, may explain why Gusinsky told Spain’s ABC that he is ready to sell NTV only to “independent investors” and with guarantees that NTV will remain independent of the Kremlin. Indeed, he may fear that NTV’s various self-proclaimed “saviors” may be trying to cut a deal at his expense. His fears may have been reinforced by press reports about who attended the February 15 meeting between representatives of Gazprom and the consortium. Gazprom was represented by, among others, Dmitry Medvedev, first deputy head of the Kremlin administration and chairman of Gazprom’s board of directors; Aleksandr Kazakov, board chairman of Gazprom-Media (the gas giant’s media arm) and a member of Gazprom’s management; and Alfred Kokh, general director of Gazprom-Media. Ted Turner’s consortium was represented by Robert Wussler, director of the Wussler Group and close associate of the CNN founder, who said he was representing five investors–Sweden’s Modern Times Group, Turner Ventures International, Soros Fund Management, Capital Research and Management Company (which already holds a small stake in Media-Most) and ESN Investment and Management Company, a Russian entity. In addition, two Russians reportedly accompanied Wussler. One was Leonid Rozhetsky, who in 1997 helped put together a consortium which won a 25 percent stake in Svayzinvest, Russia’s telecommunications holding company. That consortium included Soros and Deutsche Bank, which is currently serving as a consultant to Gazprom-Media in its dealings with Media-Most.
The other Russian who accompanied Wussler was Grigory Berezkin, head of Evroseverneft, described by Kommersant as a company “specializing in anticrisis management of industrial objects.” Berezkin–whom Vedomosti described as being not only a financial participant in the Turner-led consortium, but “one of its main organizers”–was formerly board chairman of the KomiTEK oil company and, according to Vedomosti, its real owner. Lukoil bought KomiTEK in 1991 for a 5 percent Lukoil stake, currently worth more than US$450 million, and Berezkin is reportedly angling for a seat on Lukoil’s board of directors. Other aspects of Berezkin’s biography are likely to be disquieting for Vladimir Gusinsky. In 1996, KomiTEK’s Moscow subsidiary became a partner with Sibneft, the oil company then controlled by the oligarchs Boris Berezovsky and Roman Abramovich. Berezkin reportedly maintains close relations with both Abramovich–who over the last year added the titles of aluminum baron and Chukotka governor to his resume–and Aleksandr Mamut, the chairman of the advisory council of MDM Bank, who according to the media rumor mill is another major oligarch and Kremlin insider. Abramovich, Mamut and Berezkin are reportedly co-owners of Sedmoi Kontinent, a chain of Western-style supermarkets in Moscow (Kommersant, February 16; Vedomosti, February 19). In October 1999, Itogi, NTV’s weekly news analysis program, alleged that the Kremlin administration had acted as the “krysha” (roof, meaning protection) for a scheme to launder money abroad illegally which involved both MDM Bank and Sedmoi Kontinent (see the Monitor, October 11, 1999). Couple the fact that NTV made these allegations with the reports that Mamut and Abramovich remain close to Kremlin chief of staff Aleksandr Voloshin, who has also been a frequent target of Media-Most corruption allegations, and it is not difficult to see why Gusinsky might view Berezkin’s involvement in the Turner-Soros consortium with alarm.
Media-Most has also been offered financial assistance by Berezovsky, who has remained outside Russia after publicly breaking with Putin and accusing the president of authoritarianism. Some observers believe that Berezovsky’s offers of assistance–including a US$50 million loan to help Media-Most cover its operating expenses and a pledge to negotiate with Credit Suisse First Boston to buy out a $262 million debt owed by Media-Most–are also motivated by something other than altruism or a commitment to preserve Russia’s beleaguered independent media in Russia (see the Monitor, February 8, 16).
GUUAM’S GROWTH PAINS.