Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 235

In November, when Deputy Prosecutor General Vasily Kolmogorov accused Media-Most of having taken on debts worth more than its total assets and summoned the holding’s founder, Vladimir Gusinsky, for questioning on charges of large-scale fraud, the Monitor wrote that “it is hard to escape the conclusion that the Prosecutor General’s Office is seeking to jail Gusinsky and liquidate Media-Most” (see the Monitor, November 2). Now, less than two months later, the Prosecutor General’s Office appears to be close to achieving those goals. Gusinsky was jailed last week by the Spanish authorities on a Russian warrant and awaits possible extradition (see the Monitor, December 13). Just a few days later, a Moscow tax inspectorate filed suits with the city’s arbitration court to get Media-Most and a number of its subsidiaries, including NTV television, declared bankrupt (Russian agencies, December 15). Besides NTV, Media-Most includes Radio Ekho Moskvy and the Seven Days publishing house, home to the newspaper Segodnya. The suits will reportedly be decided some time in January (Russian agencies, December 18). Last year, both Segodnya and NTV television began devoting attention to allegations of corruption within the entourage of then President Boris Yeltsin. In July 1999, tax police raided the offices of Seven Days just a day after Itogi, NTV’s weekly news analysis program, ran a segment alleging that Aleksandr Voloshin–who was then, as now, Kremlin chief of staff–had been involved in two alleged pyramid schemes, the All Russian Automobile Alliance (AVVA) and Chara bank (see the Monitor, July 20, 1999).

Media-Most’s critical coverage of the Kremlin has not waned during the Putin era, and Gusinsky and other Media-Most executives–along with many independent observers–contend that the holding’s ongoing travails are the result of political persecution. According to one Media-Most executive, the next step against the holding could come with the New Year. Yevgeny Kiselev, NTV’s general director, said last night on Itogi, the channel’s weekly news analysis program he hosts, that he had been told by a well-informed source that “a certain group of political technologists” who have previously authored various “projects” for the authorities has developed a plan to shut down NTV on the evening of December 31-January 1, while the country is focused on New Year’s celebrations (NTV, December 17).

Meanwhile, President Vladimir Putin yesterday denied that there were any limitations on free speech in Russia. Prior to leaving for Canada on an official visit, Putin referred to the controversy surrounding Media-Most, criticizing the “so-called oligarchs who consider their newspaper and television companies levers of pressure on the state.” Earlier Putin had said the government should not interfere in the cases that the prosecutors and courts were bringing against Media-Most and Gusinsky, but called the media mogul “a person who took credits and cannot repay them.” If one borrows money, one must either return it or work out another solution with your creditor, Putin said. Media-Most owes Gazprom US$300 million, but the two sides recently reached an agreement to pay off the debt–a fact which Putin did not mention (NTV, December 17). A number of Russia’s political figures, parties and movements have expressed concern over the situation surrounding Gusinsky and Media-Most. Last week leaders of the Union of Right-Wing Forces (SPS) and Yabloko–including Boris Nemtsov, Irina Khakamada, Grigory Yavlinsky and Vladimir Lukin–signed an open letter to Putin charging that the Prosecutor General’s Office was politically persecuting Media-Most (Segodnya, December 14). Later in the week, during NTV’s “Glas Naroda” political talk show, Nemtsov charged that the Kremlin was using the Moscow tax authorities’ suit against Media-Most and NTV as a back-door way to nationalize them (NTV, December 15).

It is interesting to note that Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov, who in the past has been close to Gusinsky, his now-bankrupt Most Bank and Media-Most, said over the weekend that he saw nothing political in the Moscow tax inspectorate’s suit against Media-Most and NTV and that both the Prosecutor General’s Office and the Moscow tax authorities had reason to be looking into the media group’s “problems” (Russian agencies, December 16). Earlier this year, Luzhkov criticized the Prosecutor General’s Office for its actions against Gusinsky and Media-Most. It should be noted that the Moscow city government is one of Media-Most’s creditors: The media holding reportedly owes Luzhkov’s administration $220 million, meaning that the city government could wind up with a significant Media-Most stake if the holding goes bankrupt (Vedmosti, December 18). It is also worth noting that, according to Luzhkov, Putin, while on his official visit last week to Cuba, phoned the Moscow mayor and discussed, among other things, the controversy surrounding Anatoly Chubais’ plan to restructure United Energy Systems, the country’s power grid, which Chubais heads. All this suggests a warming of relations between the Kremlin and the Moscow mayor.