Publication: Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 2

The Moscow transportation prosecutor’s office has launched a criminal case in connection with Russian Public Television (ORT), the 51-percent state-owned television channel which until recently was reportedly controlled by the controversial tycoon Boris Berezovsky. The case involves charges of contraband and evasion of customs tariffs involving the channel’s importation of films and videocassettes from abroad over four years. According to the prosecutors, the channel’s contraband activities cost the state more than US$1 million. The investigation is focusing on three ORT employees, one of whom has been put on the federal list of wanted criminals. The names of the employees have not been revealed. The case appears to have been based on an investigation conducted by Aleksandr Khinshtein, a journalist with Moskovsky komsomolets. Khinshtein also accused top ORT officials of involvement in real estate machinations and tax evasion, and hinted that they were also involved in murders. The journalist has been of Berezovsky’s more public foes, frequently writing articles accusing the tycoons and his reputed associates of involvement in criminal activity (NTV, Russian agencies, January 2). Last month, the Moscow air transportation prosecutor’s office carried out a search of ORT’s offices in Moscow, and the raid included uniformed and armed commandos. Vladimir Ustinov, Russia’s prosecutor general, protested what he characterized as the use of excessive force in that raid. As a result, the official heading the investigating team for the air transportation prosecutor’s office was fired (NTV, December 5-6, 2000).

The new criminal case could be aimed at Berezovsky’s remaining allies at ORT. Berezovsky has remained outside Russia after being summoned in November to give evidence in the Aeroflot case, which involves allegations that two Swiss firms connected to Berezovsky embezzled funds from Russia’s state airline. Berezovsky declined to return to Russia for questioning, charging that President Vladimir Putin had given him the choice of either becoming a political prisoner or a political immigrant (see the Monitor, November 15, 2000). Last month, Nikolai Glushkov, a former top Aeroflot official and close Berezovsky associate, was arrested on charges of large-scale fraud and jailed in Moscow’s Lefortovo prison. Following Glushkov’s arrest, Berezovsky announced that he had decided to cancel his plans to hand over the 49-percent stake in ORT he controls to a group of journalists and cultural figures, to be held in trust. Berezovsky said he feared that the holders of these shares would become targets of the authorities (see the Monitor, December 8, 2000). Later in the month, he said he might sell of his 49 percent ORT stake, but that he would retain the other media under his control, including the influential newspaper Kommersant (Russian agencies, December 21, 2000). There have been rumors that Berezovsky might sell the ORT stake to Roman Abramovich, the Sibneft oil baron who reportedly was once Berezovsky’s protege. Abramovich, who is also a shareholder in Russian Aluminum, the multibillion-dollar holding created last year, last month won an overwhelming victory in the election for the governorship of Chukotka, in Russia’s Far North. Prior to being elected governor, Abramovich held a seat in the State Duma representing a district in Chukotka.