- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 12, 2000

MOSCOW Police investigators seized documents yesterday from Russia's Media-Most holding company, its flagship television station and its financial partner, the state gas monopoly, as officials pursued their case against media tycoon and Kremlin critic Vladimir Gusinsky.

Meanwhile, the Russian head of the world's second-largest nickel producer disclosed that a prosecutor has suggested he pay millions of dollars if he wants to keep his company, which was privatized three years ago. And the tax police announced they've opened a criminal case against Russia's largest oil company, Lukoil, for alleged tax evasion.

Some of Russia's most visible businesses and their owners are under growing pressure from the state.

President Vladimir Putin has called for leveling the playing field for Russian businesses, saying even the country's biggest enterprises should not get favorable treatment.

But he has said little about the current investigations, and the prosecutor's office has likewise been evasive making it hard to determine who exactly is behind them.

Alexei Chaplygin, an analyst with the Center for Civil Society Studies, called the recent moves "an attempt to pack all resources into one briefcase financial resources and … the mass media."

The Gusinsky case has taken on particular significance since media outlets owned by Media-Most have been critical of the Kremlin. Many perceive the case against Mr. Gusinsky as a Kremlin-ordered attempt to stifle media freedoms in Russia.

Prosecutors say the documents seized at Media-Most yesterday were part of an investigation into whether Mr. Gusinsky defrauded the government of $10 million in a privatization deal.

They said the search at Gazprom, which owns about 30 percent of Media-Most's NTV television network and holds 17 percent to 20 percent more of the company's stock as collateral for a bad loan, was part of the same inquiry.

The investigation at Media-Most was the second in three months, and followed Mr. Gusinsky's four-day detention last month when he was charged over the privatization deal.

Mr. Putin has said some media outlets are beholden to their owners and are weapons in political battles, but he flatly denies that the investigation is directed at changing Media-Most's editorial line.

Analysts said the Gusinsky case, coupled with pressure on the businessman whose company has a controlling stake in Norilsk Nickel, Vladimir Potanin, could indicate that the government is moving against some of Russia's so-called oligarchs. They are the small circle of influential businessmen who gained wealth under former President Boris Yeltsin and were seen as getting favorable treatment from the government.

Prosecutors claim that an original 38 percent stake in Norilsk was sold to Mr. Potanin at a price $140 million short of its actual value. The Moscow prosecutor's office filed a lawsuit last month saying that the company should be returned to the state, but it was rejected.

In another dispute between a business giant and the government, the tax police have opened a criminal case against the leadership of Russia's largest oil company, Lukoil, for alleged tax evasion, the tax police said yesterday. Tax evasion is common in Russia, robbing the state of needed revenues.

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