Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 132

Media-Most was threatened on another front yesterday. The giant state oil company LUKoil announced that it was suing NTV, Media-Most’s television company, for 10 billion rubles (approximately US$357 million) in connection with a recent edition of “Sovershenno Sekretno” (Top Secret), an investigative program broadcast weekly on NTV. On July 3, the program featured an investigation into the death three years ago of Vitaly Schmidt, who was Lukoil’s vice-president. Some of Schmidt’s relatives accused the oil company of hiding his inheritance and suggested that he died of unnatural causes. LUKoil Vice President Leonid Fedun claimed that the price of the company’s shares dropped by a dollar each after the broadcast, robbing the company of a total of US$800 million in capitalization. However, a newspaper cast doubt on Fedun’s claim, noting that the price of LUKoil shares in fact rose the day after the program (Vedomosti, July 7). The company also claimed that the broadcast had caused various contracts to be canceled and threatened the state’s plans to float LUKoil shares on the New York Stock Exchange.

In any case, Lukoil’s press service yesterday said that it was suing NTV for disseminating false information about the oil company and discrediting its management, and would demand the arrest of NTV’s assets, including its shares, to satisfy the suit (Russian agencies, July 6). Following his arrest and release from Moscow’s notorious Butyrka Prison last month, Gusinsky claimed that he had information that LUKoil head Vagit Alekperov and several top officials in the Yukos oil company might be arrested (see the Monitor, June 19). LUKoil officials said Gusinsky’s claim was baseless, and sent an inquiry to the law-enforcement agencies about whether they had any basis to arrest Alekperov. The company expects the inquiry to be answered soon (Russian agencies, July 6).

The LUKoil demarche could very well represent another attempt by the Kremlin to tighten the financial screws on Media-Most, whose press outlets have been critical of various Kremlin policies, officials and insiders. According to many observers, the Kremlin has already tried to use Gazprom, Russia’s natural gas monopoly, to pressure the media group. Gazprom owns around 30 percent of NTV, around 14 percent of Media-Most and holds two 20-percent stakes of Media-Most as collateral against loans worth more than US$380 million (Moscow Times, June 22).