Publication: Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 64

The coming week could prove decisive for NTV, the television channel belonging to Vladimir Gusinsky’s Media-Most holding: Its main creditor, the 38-percent state-owned Gazprom natural gas monopoly, is poised to convene a shareholders’ meeting tomorrow (April 3) at which it may succeed in taking over the TV company’s board of directors and replacing its general director, Yevgeny Kiselev. Media-Most’s officials and lawyers have denounced attempts by Gazprom-Media, the gas-giant’s media arm, to hold the shareholder’s meeting as illegal. Las week, however, a Moscow court refused to consider a legal challenge to the meeting. Meanwhile, thousands of demonstrators gathered at Moscow’s Pushkin Square to demonstrate their support for NTV and freedom of speech more generally (see the Monitor, March 30).

Kiselev, who also hosts Itogi, NTV’s weekly news analysis program, said during last night’s edition of the program that he had learned from “reliable sources” that Gazprom-Media chief Alfred Kokh plans to name Boris Jordan as NTV’s general director. Both Jordan, a U.S. citizen of Russian extraction who heads the Sputnik Group, an investment fund, and Kokh were involved in the 1997 “Writer’s Union” book royalties’ scandal, when it was revealed that Kokh, who was then Russia’s privatization chief, along with privatization architect Anatoly Chubais and others, had received honoraria ranging from US$90,000 to US$100,000 for a book on Russian privatization from a Swiss publisher connected to Vladimir Potanin’s Oneksimbank, which had won a number of controversial privatization auctions. The honoraria for the book, which had not yet been written, came from the Servina publishing house, which had been commissioned by Oneksimbank’s Zurich office to publish the book. Servina was founded by a law firm headed by a relative of Boris Jordan. Jordan and Potanin, who today heads the Interros holding, were the intellectual authors of the controversial 1995 loans-for-shares scheme, in which controlling stakes in some Russia’s most valuable enterprises were handed over to Kremlin-connected bankers and financiers for next to nothing. The two were also part of the winning consortium in the summer 1997 auction of 25-percent stake in Svayzinvest, Russia’s telecommunications holding company. The losing consortium, which included Gusinsky’s Media-Most, Alfa-Bank and Boris Berezovsky, charged that the auction was rigged, after which media belonging to Gusinsky and Berezovsky, including NTV, revved up a campaign against Kokh, Chubais and their allies. Then President Boris Yeltsin later removed Kokh as privatization chief, charging he had been too close to “certain banks”–a clear reference to Oneksimbank. The battle between the two oligarchical camps culminated with Berezovsky’s removal as deputy secretary of the Kremlin’s Security Council, immediately after which the book royalties scandal broke.

Also over the weekend, the daily Moskovsky Komsomolets quoted Aleksandr Kuvaev, a State Duma deputy and top member of the Communist Party of the Russian Federation, as saying he had information that Kiselev might be replaced as NTV’s head by “a person more loyal to the Kremlin.” The paper named four possible replacements for Kiselev: Aleksei Volin, who is in charge of information policy for the apparatus of Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov’s cabinet and was previously board chairman of the state’s Ria-Novosti news agency; Eduard Sagalaev, former board chairman of TV-6, the Moscow-based television channel recently and formally taken over by Berezovsky loyalists; Oleg Poptov, head of TV-Tsenter, the television channel belonging to the Moscow city government; Gleb Pavlovsky, the controversial political PR specialist and unofficial adviser to President Vladimir Putin. Interestingly, Volin was the official who came out this past January and said that the Kremlin would not give any special guarantees to foreign investors interested in buying shares in NTV. Volin’s comments came after a consortium headed by CNN founder Ted Turner said it was interested in buying a significant stake in NTV provided the Kremlin gave it guarantees it would not interfere in the channel’s editorial policy. Volin said that state could not and did not have the right to “create special conditions” for any individual market player (Reuters, January 20). In any case, if any of the above-mentioned figures were to be put in charge of NTV, the channel would, as Moskovsky Komsomolets put it, “completely change its face” (Moskovsky Komsomolets, March 31).

It seems, however, that Kiselev and his allies will put up a fight if Gazprom does indeed try to replace NTV’s current management team. During last night’s Itogi, Kiselev warned again that the channel’s journalists would “never resign themselves to the fact that one marauder, swindler and scoundrel”–meaning Kokh–“is trying to appoint for us a sergeant-major similar to himself. We will rebuff him…. [The journalists] unanimously support [my position] that we will not tolerate any illegal decisions and will not carry them out” (NTV, April 1). In an interview last month, Kiselev suggested that even if Gazprom-Media were to take over the NTV board of directors and arrive “with OMON”–special police commandos–to seat a new general director, “it will end with our broadcasts simply stopping” (Vedomosti, March 13). Indeed, Moskovsky Komsomolets reported today in its weekly “Rumors” column that NTV’s present management has a “secret plan” to take the station off the air if it is the target of a hostile takeover. The paper gave no details as to what this plan might entail (Moskovsky Komsomolets, April 2).

All of this suggests that a confrontation could be looming between NTV’s current management and journalists and Gazprom-Media. Kiselev himself upped the temperature somewhat during last night’s Itogi, devoting a segment to the controversy surrounding Itera, Russia’s second largest natural gas company (NTV, April 1). Some of Gazprom’s minority shareholders–including Boris Federov, the former finance minister who sits on Gazprom’s board–suspect Itera was set up by Gazprom’s management as a way to funnel the gas monopoly’s assets abroad, a charge that officials of both companies deny. The state’s Audit Chamber, headed by Sergei Stepashin, began probing the Itera-Gazprom connection late last year, but the Polit.ru website reported last month that Gazprom chief Rem Vyakhirev cut a deal with the Kremlin by which it agreed to drop the probe into Itera and other aspects of Gazprom’s bookkeeping in return for Gazprom’s agreement to do the Kremlin’s bidding vis-a-vis Media-Most and NTV. Vyakhirev announced last month that Gazprom planned on taking a controlling share of NTV, contradicting earlier statements by Kokh that the gas giant did not seek control of NTV and favored foreign investment in the channel, including the Turner consortium’s planned bid (Polit.ru, March 20).

Meanwhile, the March 31 demonstration in support of NTV showed that the channel has some popular support, at least in Moscow, despite a more generalized public apathy and strong public support for Putin. According to various estimates, anywhere from 6,000 to 20,000 demonstrators showed up, many of them carrying placards denouncing the Russian president (Moscow Times, Segodnya, April 2). This could create the conditions for a confrontation like the one involving state television in the Czech Republic earlier this year. Russian state television, meanwhile, downplayed the turnout and tried to dismiss the demonstration as being little more than an advertisement for NTV (RTR, April 1).