Control over the Media-Most holding may be on the verge of shifting from its founder and chief, Vladimir Gusinsky, to its main creditor, the 38-percent state-owned company Gazprom, and a consortium of Western investors. Yevgeny Kiselev, general director of NTV, Media-Most’s flagship television channel, and host of Itogi, NTV’s influential weekly news analysis program, told the Spanish newspaper Mundo that Gusinsky and other Media-Most officials met at the end of last week with CNN founder Ted Turner, financier George Soros and other members of an investment consortium which has expressed interest in investing in Media-Most and particularly NTV. Kiselev told the Spanish paper that while he could not reveal details of the negotiations, “substantial progress” had been made in the talks and an agreement concerning “the sale of a part of NTV’s shares” was “more real than it’s ever been” (Russian agencies, March 8).
Meanwhile, Alfred Kokh, who heads Gazprom’s media arm, has been in the United States putting forward his company’s spin on its conflict with Gusinsky, which corresponds to President Vladimir Putin’s view of it–that is, that it is strictly a commercial conflict, not a political one. Kokh said yesterday that he had been in meetings this week at the U.S. State Department and had discussed the situation surrounding NTV and the issue of press freedom in Russia with members of President George W. Bush’s National Security Council. Kokh said they had also discussed the Turner-Soros consortium’s bid to invest in NTV. Earlier this week, Kokh said he was ready to support that consortium’s investment in NTV, but only if it was not aimed against Gazprom’s interests, was completely transparent and did not allow anyone to exercise control over NTV “singlehandedly”–an apparent reference to Gusinsky. Kokh said that if Gusinsky were to turn down the Turner-Soros consortium’s offer, Gazprom-Media would either “quickly and effectively take control” of NTV through various lawsuits which remain to be adjudicated, or, if the legal wrangling ended up taking a long time, NTV would most likely end up being declared bankrupt and losing its license (Russian agencies, March 6-8).
All this suggests that NTV, perhaps along with other Media-Most outlets, will soon be taken over by Gazprom-Media and the consortium led by Ted Turner and George Soros, leaving Gusinsky with a minor role or forced out altogether. The key remaining question is whether the participation of Turner and Soros will be able to ensure that NTV and other Media-Most outlets remain independent of Kremlin pressure on their editorial decisions, either directly or via Gazprom–a guarantee which Turner has unsuccessfully tried to elicit from President Vladimir Putin. The fact that one of the participants in the Turner-Soros consortium is Grigory Berezkin–a Russian oilman who reportedly maintains close ties two Kremlin-connected oligarchs, Chukotka Governor Roman Abramovich and Moscow banker Aleksandr Mamut–could be troubling from the point of view of maintaining NTV’s independence, particularly if Berezkin is the Western investors’ main channel for information about what is going on with Media-Most (see the Monitor, February 19, 22). An important test will be if and how the new owners decide to change NTV’s board of directors, and in particular whether Kiselev, who has been a vocal critic of Kremlin policy, is removed from the board and/or his spot as host of Itogi.
In the meantime, there were reports this week that Media-Most’s weekly news magazine–which is also called Itogi and is a joint venture with the U.S. magazine Newsweek–and the daily newspaper Segodnya, may soon be removed from Seven Days, Media-Most’s publishing house, and put under Gazprom-Media’s control. Gusinsky now controls a 50 percent-minus-one-share stake in Seven Days, with Gazprom in control of a 25 percent-plus-one-share stake in the publishing house and Dmitry Birykov, Seven Days’ general director, holding a 25-percent stake. The Lenta.ru website yesterday quoted a source in Media-Most as saying that Birykov had switched loyalties to Gazprom and thus that Gazprom-Media would soon get a controlling stake in Seven Days. Gazprom-Media’s Kokh reportedly plans to get rid of the newspaper while forcing the magazine to change its editorial line. Both publications are said to have been either losing money or breaking even (Lenta.ru, March 7). Gusinsky remains under house arrest in Spain, where he was detained on a warrant from the Russian Prosecutor General’s Office, which wants him extradited to face charges of large-scale fraud. A Spanish court hearing on the Russian extradition request that was scheduled for yesterday was postponed until next week (Russian agencies, March 7).
BROOKLYN COURT WILL HEAR BORODIN BAIL REQUEST TODAY.