Probe opens into Russian media bid


MOSCOW, AP

Former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev on Tuesday accused the government of “crude blackmail” against Russia’s biggest independent media group, and said he wanted to discuss the matter with President Vladimir Putin.

Russia’s natural gas giant Gazprom, which is partly owned by the Russian government, is trying to take over the embattled Media-Most holding company. The move is seen by many media watchdogs as the latest attempt by the government to silence the company, which has been critical of the Kremlin, and to rein in press freedom.

Media-Most, which includes Russia’s main private TV channel, a prominent radio station and several leading newspapers, has already seen its offices raided by masked, armed police. Media Most head Vladimir Gusinsky was held in jail for four days in June on fraud charges.

About a month after his release from prison, Gusinsky signed an agreement with Gazprom, promising to sell Media-Most to Gazprom for what Gazprom said was a US$473 million debt plus US$300 million.

Gusinsky now says he signed the July 20 deal under duress, and that the agreement has no legal force.

One of the agreement’s provisions was that the sale would be in exchange for guarantees of freedom and safety for Gusinsky and his business associates, Gorbachev told reporters on Tuesday. The former Soviet president heads a group of prominent public figures who serve as advisers for Media Most’s flagship television station NTV.

Gorbachev described the agreement as an “instance of crude blackmail by the state,” and said the public council had asked for an “urgent meeting” between him and Putin.

Meanwhile, the head of Gazprom’s own, small media holding company, Alfred Kokh, insisted Tuesday that the attempts to take over Media-Most were driven purely by business interests and had no political motivation.

Media-Most is behind on a US$211 million loan from Gazprom, and is due to pay millions of dollars more in other loans in the coming months.

“The operations of Media-Most don’t bring even nearly the kind of money that is needed to pay those debts,” Kokh told a news conference.

By buying out Media-Most, Gazprom will be able to protect its investment and save Media-Most from bankruptcy, Kokh said. He added that Gazprom then planned resell a controlling share to foreign media groups, thus preserving Media-Most’s independence from the Russian government.

Kokh reiterated Gazprom’s accusation that Media Most had transferred most of its assets to offshore companies to hide them from Gazprom. Prosecutors said Tuesday that they had opened an investigation.

In another media-related development, the newly appointed trustees of ORT television learned that they would have to come up with US$100,000 to form a private company to oversee their shares, Russian media reported.

The trustees, including many prominent journalists, met Monday for the first time since

Earlier this month, tycoon Boris Berezovsky asked the group to control his 49 percent of shares in the company. Berezovsky said he was trying to keep the shares out of the hands of the government, which controls 51 percent of the company.

The trustees were surprised to learn Monday that they would have to collect the funds for the new company and that Berezovsky would hold them financially accountable for how they managed the shares, The Moscow Times reported Tuesday.