- Associated Press - Wednesday, December 14, 2011

MOSCOW (AP) - The owner of the New Jersey Nets, who is running against Vladimir Putin in Russia’s presidential election, tried without success on Wednesday to buy a leading media holding company in the country.

Mikhail Prokhorov, who is worth about $18 billion according to Forbes magazine, announced his candidacy earlier this week for the March presidential election.

Prokhorov offered to buy Russia’s Kommersant publishing house, but its owner, Alisher Usmanov, said he doesn’t plan to sell it.

“We’re not considering the proposal. … We’re not going to sell the Kommersant publishing house,” Usmanov told reporters. He said that he instead offered to buy Prokhorov’s stake in the RBK media group, a competitor of Kommersant‘s.

He did not say how Prokhorov had responded, and its was not immediately possible to reach the owner of the U.S. pro-basketball team.

Usmanov, a metals magnate, bought Kommersant for $200 million in 2006. The holding company, which includes Russia’s top business daily and other publications, has since expanded into radio and television broadcast.

On Tuesday, Usmanov fired an editor and a senior manager after the Kommersant Vlast weekly published an article about alleged fraud in Russia’s Dec. 4 parliamentary election and a photo of a ballot containing vulgar words directed at Putin. The weekly’s editor, Maxim Kovalsky, said he was told that’s why he was fired.

Russia’s parliamentary election saw a sharp drop in support for Putin’s United Russia party, and widespread allegations of ballot-stuffing and other violations. The ballot led last weekend to the largest anti-government protets that Russia had seen since the 1991 collapse of its communist government.

Usmanov said recent reports in Vlast “bordered on petty hooliganism,” and Kovalsky’s deputy, Veronika Kutsillo, said the offending photo was just a pretext behind the move by Usmanov, who previously had expressed his dissatisfaction with the magazine’s contents.

“This isn’t merely a punishment of an obstinate editor, it’s a signal that the magazine’s course must change,” Kutsillo said in an e-mailed message, adding that she decided to resign.

More than 50 Kommersant journalists signed an open letter to protest Kovalsky’s dismissal. “We view this firing as an intimidation effort aimed at preventing any criticism of Vladimir Putin, even if this concerns photographs,” the letter said.

On Wednesday Usmanov met with Kommersant’s staff, saying he felt he “was able to explain his decision.” He said, “Not only that, but I also told them that the same moral principals will be used in my future decisions on the ethics journalists must adhere to.”

Putin has enjoyed blanket positive coverage from state-controlled television networks. Some of the print media, which have remained independent and often critical of the government, have faced pressure from owners fearing their business interests could be hurt as a result.

Prokhorov’s presidential bid follows his botched performance before the parliamentary election when he formed a liberal political party with the Kremlin’s tacit support but abandoned it under what he called Kremlin pressure.

Some observers said that Prokhorov may have made amends with the Kremlin and might be running for president to accommodate voters unhappy with the authorities.

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