Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 190

Media-Most chief Vladimir Gusinsky’s chances of retaining control of his media holding dwindled this week after a state bank and a government ministry announced that they were seeking the repayment of debts owed them by Media-Most. On October 10, Vneshekonombank–at the request of the Finance Ministry–sued Bonum-1, a Media-Most subsidiary, for US$30.8 million: According to the bank, Bonum-1 signed loan-guarantee agreements with the bank and the ministry but failed to make US$30.8 million in debt repayments which had come due.

In 1997 and 1998 all three players signed a total of four agreements to provide Bonum-1 with US$142.5 million to pay off loans it accepted from the U.S. ExIm Bank and Chase Manhattan Bank to build and launch a telecommunications satellite for NTV-Plus, Media-Most’s satellite television company. Media-Most claims that it is up to date on its payments to both Vneshekonombank and the Finance Ministry, having made a US$15 million payment last year in the form of OGVZs–Finance Ministry promissory notes. Vneshekonombank notes that last year a court ruled that the US$15 million payment with OGVZs was illegal and says that Bonum-1 has not paid an additional past-due US$15 million. The bank maintains that Media-Most owes it still another US$63 million for other loans.

Media-Most also owes US$473 million to Gazprom, the natural gas monopoly, and US$100 million to Sberbank, the state savings bank, which recently canceled its loan agreement with Media-Most, effectively demanding repayment of the loan (see the Monitor, October 4). This would put Media-Most’s total outstanding debts at close to US$1 billion–an amount, according to some estimates, exceeding the media holding’s total value. Gazprom-Media, the gas giant’s media arm, puts Media-Most’s total value at US$500-700 million. Media-Most itself says that it is worth US$2 billion, which corresponds to some Western assessments of the media holding’s value made prior to the August 1998 financial crash (Izvestia, Kommersant, October 11; Moscow Times, October 12).

Whatever the case, it seems clear that the Russian government is now bent on calling in Media-Most’s debts, with the apparent aim of bringing about a change in the holding’s ownership. The Prosecutor General’s Office has launched a fraud investigation based on Gazprom’s charges that Media-Most transferred assets abroad, including those put up as collateral for Gazprom’s loans (see the Monitor, October 4). Media-Most has denied those charges. Meanwhile, there are new reports that top personnel from NTV, Media-Most’s national TV channel, are preparing to jump ship. Vladimir Kulistikov, the channel’s chief news editor, confirmed yesterday that he was leaving on a vacation and was not clear about whether he would return (Vremya novostei, October 12). This is much the same way that Oleg Dobrodeev, NTV’s former general director, left the station earlier this year. Dobrodeev, a co-founder of NTV, reportedly left the channel because of disagreements with Gusinsky over how to cover the war in Chechnya. He subsequently became the head of VGTRK, the state media conglomerate which includes RTR television (see the Monitor, February 17). There were also rumors yesterday that Yevgeny Kiselev, NTV’s general director and host of its weekly news analysis program, Itogi, was on the verge of stepping down as the station’s head. Spokesmen for NTV and Media-Most denied both rumors (Russian agencies, October 11).