MOSCOW, Jan. 26 — His defenders insist otherwise,
and they may
yet be right. But there are growing signs that the
battle to control
Vladimir Gusinsky's Media-Most press empire — and
by extension, the
last nationwide voice critical of President Vladimir V.
Putin — is near
endgame, and that Mr. Putin's allies smell victory.
Media-Most's largest creditor, the state-controlled
Gazprom natural- gas
monopoly, formally said today that it planned to appoint
its own board of
directors for the company after a Moscow court decision
on Thursday that,
Gazprom said, gives it control of Media-Most.
Media-Most lawyers and officials just as adamantly
denied that Gazprom
has legal control, and said they would fight the
takeover in courts in
Moscow, London and Gibraltar.
At the same time, government prosecutors once again
racheted up a
high-profile, if murky, criminal inquiry into
Media-Most, summoning the top
anchorwoman of the company's NTV television network for
today about money the company lent her in 1994.
Prosecutors later said they believed that Media-Most had
100 journalists and other employees large sums of
foreign currency, an act
that was not illegal but that they said needed
The actions seem to signal a more intense assault
against Mr. Gusinsky and
Media-Most, which says it has been raided 27 times since
clad in ski masks and camouflage and toting
semiautomatic rifles raided the
headquarters in May.
The anchorwoman, Tatyana Mitkova, said after the session
prosecutors that it was "completely clear to me what
this is about," adding,
"There is nothing financial about it; it's all
Most political experts here agree. "The message from the
Kremlin, from the
beginning of last year, was `don't mess with politics,'
" said Vyacheslav
Nikonov, a former national legislator and director of
the Politika Foundation,
a research group. "And the two guys who didn't get the
message are in big
Mr. Nikonov was referring to Boris A. Berezovsky, a
tycoon with interests in
autos, airlines, newspapers and television, who tried to
opposition to Mr. Putin last year. He is now in
self-imposed exile outside
He was also pointing to Mr. Gusinsky, whose NTV
Russia's only independent nationwide television network,
criticized Mr. Putin's conduct of the war in Chechnya
and other matters.
Mr. Gusinsky is now under house arrest in Spain,
fighting extradition to
Moscow, to face fraud charges that he says are part of a
In fact, there is little else — so far, anyway — to
explain why prosecutors
have singled out Mr. Gusinsky and his company for such
The prosecutors' inquiry has meandered from allegations
eavesdropping to questions about Media-Most's stake in a
Petersburg television station, and on to doubts about
its credits with
Gazprom and to questions about money given to employees.
Mr. Gusinsky has been jailed twice, and other top aides
have been arrested
or threatened with arrest. But no one has been tried on
any charges, much
The financial battle with Gazprom seems fueled by mutual
broken promises, led by Media- Most's inability to make
good on its
obligations to the company.
But as is often true in Russian politics, nothing is
Mr. Gusinsky and his allies cast the fight as a clear
issue of press freedom,
saying the Kremlin is persecuting Media-Most to shut
down NTV, the last
national voice of dissent with its policies. Mr. Putin,
it is true, has a
decidedly non-Western view of press freedom: he has said
that the real
threat to the press comes not from the state but from
the tycoon owners,
who merely advance their own political cases.
On the other hand, the Kremlin seems to have little
problem with the
political slant of Russia's two state- controlled
television networks, which
have been known to rough up Kremlin opponents but seldom
"To Mr. Putin and his people, there is no such thing as
an independent mass
media," Igor Malashenko, the first deputy chairman of
Media- Most, said in
an interview today.
Mr. Malashenko said that he had met more than once with
chairman, Alfred Kokh, and that it was clear he was
taking direction from
the Kremlin's press ministry.
Yet Gazprom has its own financial case. In the 1990's,
when Mr. Gusinsky
wielded his empire to boost President Boris N. Yeltsin's
popularity, he was
rewarded with access to credit — including Gazprom's
guarantees of $473
million in loans by Credit Suisse First Boston.
Media-Most repaid part of that debt, but Russia's 1998
caused the company's advertising revenues to shrivel.
And Mr. Gusinsky's
falling out with Mr. Putin over Chechnya ended any
prospect that the state
would help him out.
Since then, Gazprom has taken part of Media-Most's
shares in exchange for
debt forgiveness, and clearly has its eye on the rest.
In an interview on
Thursday on NTV, Mr. Kokh said his company was just
trying to get its
money back, hoping to sell its holding in Media-Most.
He said he had been personally instructed by Mr. Putin,
in a meeting two
Sundays ago, to settle the company's financial dispute
but to leave
Media-Most's journalists and editorial policies out of
Gazprom's court victory this week stems from an
agreement in November
that was intended to end the financial wrangling with
Media- Most, but
instead seems to have aggravated it. That agreement gave
percent of the company's stock, and put up 19 percent
more as collateral
for the debt.
But the two sides now dispute whether Mr. Gusinsky kept
the voting rights
of those shares, which he needed to control the company.
If a court should obstruct the Kremlin, Mr. Malashenko
government might act to take control of the company, regardless. "But honestly,"
he said, "I doubt
it, because it would be clear it was as Mr. Putin
decided. And I do not think
he's ready to go that far."
The original at http://www.nytimes.com/2001/01/27/world/27RUSS.html
Vladimir Gusinsky's case