Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 174

The confrontation between Vladimir Gusinsky’s Media-Most group and the authorities is heating up again, with the Prosecutor General’s Office announcing yesterday that it would look into claims by Gazprom, the 38-percent state-owned natural gas monopoly, that Media-Most had hidden assets abroad to avoid handing them over to Gazprom. The announcement came in the wake of the September 18 revelation that Gusinsky had signed an agreement in July with Alfred Kokh, who heads Gazprom-Media (the gas giant’s media arm) and Mikhail Lesin, Russia’s press minister, to sell Media-Most to Gazprom-Media for the US$473 million it owes Gazprom, plus US$300 million in cash. Immediately after this became public, Gazprom released a statement charging that Gusinsky had “refused to carry out the agreement.” At the same time, the gas giant’s head, Rem Vyakhirev, warned Media-Most that if the agreement were not carried out it “would have to be sorted out in another, not-so-peaceful way.” Gazprom-Media’s Kokh accused Gusinsky of transferring the ownership of Media-Most to several offshore companies registered in Gibraltar, including one called Most Media Capital and another called New Technology. Media-Most officials have charged that they had been negotiating in good faith with Gazprom to pay off the holding’s debts without giving up control of it, but that the authorities had pressured Gazprom into not accepting such a deal. Deputy Prosecutor General Vasily Kolmogorov said yesterday that Gusinsky might be summoned for questioning in connection with Gazprom’s accusations and that if he did not appear, Interpol, the international crime fighting agency, might be called upon to track him down. Gusinsky has recently been traveling abroad, including in the United States.

Gusinsky subsequently admitted that an agreement to hand over control of Media-Most to Gazprom existed, but said that it was invalid because it had been signed “at gunpoint”–meaning that Lesin and Kokh threatened him and his media empire with criminal investigations and arrests if he refused to sign the deal. The media mogul said that on July 18, two days before he signed the agreement, he had declared in the presence of foreign lawyers that it would have no legal standing because he was signing it under duress. He said that he had a videotape of that declaration.

Gusinsky had been imprisoned briefly in June in connection with a three-year-old corruption case, and was released from jail only after signing an agreement with the Prosecutor General’s Office not to leave Moscow while the criminal case against him was ongoing. That case was reportedly dropped and the travel ban lifted as part of the agreement to sell Media-Most to Gazprom-Media. Yesterday, however, after word of the agreement was leaked and Gusinsky publicly disavowed it, various officials from the Prosecutor General’s Office were quoted as saying that the original criminal case against Gusinsky had not been dropped completely. Deputy Prosecutor General Vasily Kolmogorov, meanwhile, said that a criminal case could be launched against Media-Most if it were discovered that the holding had transferred assets abroad to keep them out of Gazprom’s reach (Kommersant, September 20; Russian agencies, September 18-20; Moscow Times, September 19-20; ORT, September 19).