Publication: Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 63

Moscow’s Arbitration Court yesterday refused to consider a suit brought by Media Most Capital and Management Ltd., a Gibraltar-based affiliate of Vladimir Gusinsky’s Media-Most group, challenging the right of Leadville Investments Ltd., a Cyprus-based affiliate of Gazprom-Media, to convene a special meeting of NTV television’s shareholders on April 3. The two sides have sued each other over claims to a 19-percent stake in NTV, Media-Most’s flagship television station, and courts in both London and Moscow froze the disputed stake (see the Monitor, February 15). Gazprom-Media, which already holds a 46-percent stake in NTV, is now arguing that Gusinsky and his allies, who previously held a controlling stake in NTV, should not be allowed to vote with the frozen 19-percent stake in a shareholders meeting, which would effectively make Gazprom-Media’s 46-percent stake of NTV a controlling share. Yesterday’s Moscow Arbitration Court decision essentially gave Gazprom–which is 38-percent owned by the state and whose board is chaired by Dmitry Medvedev, a deputy presidential administration chief–a green light to convene the April 3 NTV shareholders meeting, at which it reportedly plans to use its self-proclaimed majority shareholder status to remove Gusinsky and his allies, including deputy Media-Most chief Igor Malashenko, from NTV’s nine-man board. The gas giant reportedly plans to replace Gusinsky and his allies with four Gazprom officials, including Gazprom-Media chief Alfred Kokh and Aleksandr Kazakov, Gazprom-Media board chairman and a member of Gazprom’s management, along with Vladimir Kulistikov, the former NTV deputy director who is now head of the state’s RIA news agency.

“We no longer have any faith in Russian courts,” Media-Most spokesman Dmitry Ostalsky said yesterday following the Moscow court decision. Other observers saw yesterday’s court decision as another nail in the coffin of NTV’s independence. “It is not a secret to anyone that the state’s general line is to establish control over NTV,” Sergei Belyak, a Moscow lawyer, told Vedomosti. “I don’t think Gusinsky should pin any hopes on Russian courts. Kokh will in any case establish control over NTV’s board of directors” (Vedomosti, March 30; see also the Monitor, January 30, February 8).

A demonstration in support of NTV, Media-Most and freedom of speech more generally will be held tomorrow at Moscow’s Pushkin Square. Among the demonstration’s organizers are Yabloko, the Union of Right-Wing Forces (SPS) and the Union of Russian Journalists (Segodnya, March 30). In an open letter published yesterday, a group of politicians and cultural figures said that NTV and Media-Most had been for almost a year under “unprecedented pressure” which more and more looks like “repression.” Noting that the law enforcement agencies had subjected the media holding and its employees to searches, arrests and “public slander,” the letter continued: “The political subtext of these persecutions is completely obvious: the suppression of dissent in the country. The authorities’ attempts to explain what has happened strictly in terms of financial-management or criminal-procedural claims against the holding and its owners seem to us hypocritical.” The letter, which also called on readers to join tomorrow’s demonstration at Pushkin Square, was signed by dozens of notables, including Mikhail Gorbachev, Yabloko leader Grigory Yavlinsky, SPS Duma faction leader Boris Nemtsov, former acting Prime Minister Yegor Gaidar, veteran human rights campaigners Sergei Kovalev and Yelena Bonner, chess grand master Garry Kasparov, the pop singer Alla Pugacheva, and the rock groups DDT and Lyube (Obshchaya Gazeta, March 29).

Earlier this week, a Spanish court allowed Gusinsky to return back to his villa in Sotogrande, in southern Spain. Earlier in the month, the Spanish authorities ordered the media magnate back to jail while they considered an extradition request from the Russian Prosecutor General’s Office. Last December, after Gusinsky was arrested on the Russian warrant, he was allowed to leave a Madrid jail after posting US$5.5 million bail and to return to his villa, where he was kept under what amounted to house arrest. Some observers said that this week’s decision to release Gusinsky from jail is a sign that the Spanish authorities plan to turn down the Russian extradition request (Moscow Times, March 27; see also the Monitor, March 18).