CNN founder Ted Turner confirmed yesterday that he had reached a deal to “buy out” Vladimir Gusinsky, founder of Media-Most and its embattled television channel, NTV. Turner was quoted as saying that he had reached an agreement with Gusinsky and was working on an agreement with Gazprom and Gazprom-Media, NTV’s main creditor. While he revealed no details of the agreements, Turner said in a statement that they would ensure the future of NTV, along with Gusinsky’s smaller TNT regional television network and his satellite TV company NTV+, “as free and independent media companies.” Proclaiming his commitment to “the promotion of free and open media around the world,” Turner also said that while he was “disappointed with the recent disruptive developments” at NTV, he valued its “highly professional and dependable” journalistic staff and sought “to secure the financial underpinnings of the company and establish a mechanism for growing the business in order to strengthen NTV’s prominence and scope throughout Russia.” He drew attention to the fact that, in his earlier negotiations with Gazprom, both sides had agreed that no one party should hold a controlling share in NTV and that they were still “pursuing that course” (CNN.com, April 4). The Washington Post reported yesterday that Turner had offered Gusinsky some US$225 million, a considerable discount from the US$300 million which Turner’s consortium had reportedly offered Gusinsky earlier this year (see the Monitor, April 4). In a conference call which reportedly took place on April 2, Gusinsky–who is in Spain awaiting possible extradition to Russia to face fraud charges–admitted to NTV’s journalists that the terms he was discussing with Turner were “economically very disadvantageous” but said he was accepting them “only to preserve the possibility of your independent work” (Kommersant, April 4). The Moscow Times today quoted unnamed sources close to the negotiations as saying that Turner assessed NTV’s total value at about US$200 million and hoped to get a 30 percent stake in the channel (Moscow Times, April 5).
It is not at all clear whether such a stake would allow Turner to have a significant impact on the channel’s management, much less guarantee its freedom from political interference by the Russian authorities. Earlier this year, representatives of Turner’s consortium sought President Vladimir Putin’s guarantee that NTV would remain free from political interference, but was rebuffed publicly by several top Kremlin officials, including Sergei Ivanov, the then Security Council secretary who was recently named defense minister. Turner is now apparently going ahead with the deals without such Kremlin assurances.
Despite such uncertainties, Media-Most, and particularly NTV’s team of journalists, who continue to regard Gazprom’s takeover of the station as illegitimate and illegal, apparently feel bolstered by the Turner consortium’s bid. Indeed, Media-Most yesterday proposed to the gas giant that a three-month moratorium be imposed on replacing NTV’s management and editorial staff, and that Turner be allowed to take part in the appointments. A Media-Most statement said that the current standoff was leading NTV into a “dead end,” destroying the channel and violating the rights of its viewers (Moscow Times, April 5). Gazprom-Media, however, today rejected the idea of a moratorium on personnel changes, arguing that NTV’s “former leadership” could during that period take steps leading to “an even greater worsening of NTV financial state.” The company restated its position that it has no plans to interfere in NTV’s editorial decisions, but simply to “bring order” to the channel’s finances (NTV, April 5).
Yesterday, Aleksandr Kazakov, a member of Gazprom’s management elected to NTV’s new board of directors on April 3, reacted to the news of the Turner-Gusinsky deal, warning that the CNN founder would be “cheated” if he bought out Gusinsky’s stake in Media-Most, given that “all of Media-Most’s assets have been transferred by Vladimir Gusinsky to another place.” Gazprom has accused Gusinsky of transferring Media-Most’s assets abroad, and this has provided part of the basis for the Prosecutor General’s Office’s criminal case against Gusinsky. At the same time, Kazakov said that he viewed the possibility of the sale of NTV shares to Turner “exceptionally positively.” “If a miracle occurs and Mr. Gusinsky sells his packet [of shares], then I can hope that he will return part of his debts to Gazprom,” Kazakov said–adding, however, that “the moon would sooner fall from the sky before Mr. Gusinsky would voluntarily return even one kopeck.” Kazakov claimed that Gazprom had loaned Media-Most a total of nearly US$1 billion–a figure far higher than other such estimates–and that Gazprom needed control over NTV “only in order to find out where Gusinsky spent the money he took” (NTV, April 4). Kazakov’s last point suggests that Gazprom will not be amenable to Turner’s stated goal of ensuring that no single shareholder will get a controlling stake in NTV.
Meanwhile, Gazprom-Media took a casualty in its battle over NTV when Anatoly Blinov, a member of Gazprom-Media’s board, resigned from his post, saying that the company’s “PR campaign” connected to the scandal had failed and could lead to mass protests. Blinov said it was possible that the authorities would try to seize NTV’s offices at the Ostankino television center by force. NTV has warned that the authorities may be planning to begin fake NTV broadcasts (Polit.ru, April 5; NTV, April 4).
At the same time, NTV journalists, in a sign of protest, are continuing to broadcast only news and information round the clock. They are also boycotting any contact with the new management team: Yevgeny Kiselev, whom Gazprom removed as NTV’s general director but who was elected the channel’s chief editor by its journalists, refused yesterday to meet with his replacement, Boris Jordan, at the latter’s invitation. The State Duma today–like yesterday–rejected an initiative by the Yabloko faction calling for a discussion of the situation surrounding NTV (Polit.ru, March 5).
NTV’s allies among Russian’s journalists have been trying to rally support and organize protests. The Union of Russian Journalists issued a statement yesterday urging all journalists to support their colleagues at NTV: “We call on you–regardless of your political sympathies and even regardless of whether you like NTV–to participate in protest actions against this arbitrary rule, against this flouting of the constitution, against this attempt to force all of us to feel like insignificant screws thrown into the abyss of a machine” (NTV, March 4). Yegor Yakovlev, editor of Obshchaya Gazeta and a veteran perestroika-era journalist, released his own statement, which said, among other things, that it was not worth asking Putin to intervene in the Gazprom-NTV battle and describing the president as “lying,” “cynical” and “suffering from delusions of grandeur.” Yakovlev’s erstwhile patron–former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev–has denounced the ouster of NTV’s management as “an insult” (Gazeta.ru, Russian agencies, April 4).
COMMUNIST PRESIDENT VORONIN TAKES OVER.