Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 175

The scandal surrounding Media-Most’s deteriorating relations with the authorities shows no signs of letting up. The latest twist in the saga concerns “Appendix 6”–the section of a document signed by Media-Most founder Vladimir Gusinsky, Gazprom-Media chief Alfred Kokh and Press Minister Mikhail Lesin last July in which Gusinsky agreed to handover Media-Most to Gazprom in return for dropping criminal charges and a travel ban against him. Earlier this week Gusinsky admitted that he had signed the document agreeing to sell off Media-Most for US$300 million cash and forgiveness of US$473 million in debt owed by his media holding to the natural gas giant. He maintained, however, that the agreement was void because he had signed it under duress (see the Monitor, September 20).

Appearing yesterday on “Hero of the Day,” an interview program on Media-Most’s NTV television channel, Igor Malashenko, deputy director of Media-Most’s board of directors, accused Lesin being part of a “band of racketeers.” Malashenko alleged that in June, when Gusinsky was jailed on charges of embezzling government funds in connection with a three-year-old illegal privatization case, Lesin had asked for a meeting, during which he told Malashenko that the Kremlin was sick of Media-Most and NTV’s critical coverage of the Chechen war, the Federal Security Service, the group of Kremlin insiders known as the “Family,” and high-level corruption, and that if Gusinsky wanted to be freed from jail, he would have to “hand over” NTV. Several weeks later, according to Malashenko, Lesin laid down an ultimatum–that Gusinsky must sell Media-Most for US$300 million and withdraw from the world of business. Malashenko characterized the ultimatum as an “outrageous instance of state racketeering in relation to Media-Most and the NTV television company,” that Kokh and Lesin had played the roles of “racketeers” and “extortionists,” and that the negotiations were analogous to negotiations with kidnappers to free a hostage. Malashenko also indicated that the entire operation against Gusinsky and his media group was coordinated by the Kremlin, charging that during the course of the negotiations over Gusinsky’s fate, Lesin had called Kremlin administration chief Aleksandr Voloshin “to schedule the next meeting for receiving directives,” and had also called Prosecutor General Vladimir Ustinov to work out the details on how the criminal case against Gusinsky would be dropped (NTV, September 20).

For his part, Gazprom-Media head Alfred Kokh accused Gusinsky of using the issue of press freedom as a way of covering up the fact that he had driven Media-Most into bankruptcy, and said that Gazprom-Media is suing Media-Most over its debts to the natural gas giant. Lesin, meanwhile, called Malashenko’s accusations an “unconcealed lie” and said he would sue the Media-Most deputy board chairman. Lesin conceded that he had made a mistake in signing the deal to sell Media-Most to Gazprom, given that he is a top government official, but that he “did the right thing” in trying to “defuse a serious financial conflict.” Publicly, the government has insisted that the negotiations between Gazprom and Media-Most fall under the category of private commercial relations in which the government should not interfere. The state, however, owns a 38 percent stake in Gazprom. Both Kokh and Lesin yesterday challenged Malashenko to television debates. Lesin also revealed that a fistfight between Gusinsky and Kokh occurred during the course of the negotiations. According to Media-Most spokesman Dmitri Ostalsky, the punch-up took place on July 26, the day the charges against Gusinsky were dropped (Russian agencies, September 20; Moscow Times, September 21).