- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 19, 2001

The leading dissident on Gazproms board of directors yesterday denounced the Russian natural gas giants hostile takeover of the countrys last independent national television network as "scandalous" and politically motivated.

"If they cared about the value of the company, why would they let the best journalists leave?" said Boris Fedorov, a former deputy prime minister and minister of finance, in a Washington address yesterday.

Russian media tycoon Vladimir Gusinsky, who has seen key pieces of his Media-Most press empire fall to Gazprom over the past week, scored a small victory yesterday when a Spanish court rejected an extradition request from Moscow prosecutors seeking to force him to return home to face multiple charges of fraud.

The heavily indebted Mr. Gusinsky contends that his legal and financial problems have been orchestrated by the Kremlin because of his network´s criticism of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Mr. Gusinsky has been under house arrest in Spain since Dec. 12 as he fights Russian government attempts to extradite him.

While many Western governments have called the Gusinsky fight a test case for press freedoms in Russia, Mr. Putin has repeatedly said the dispute is a purely financial one in which the government should not intervene.

The Russian government is Gazprom´s largest shareholder with 38.3 percent of its stock. The company, the largest natural gas supplier in the world, by itself accounts for 7 percent of Russia´s gross domestic product and a fifth of the government´s tax base.

The State Department yesterday issued yet another condemnation of the Russian government´s handling of the case, including what it said were "political pressure and intimidation tactics." Mr. Gusinsky´s media outlets have been among the few to criticize the government´s handling of the war in Chechnya and to investigate corruption in the Kremlin.

"We´ve seen actions that have led many reasonable observers to conclude that the campaign is politically motivated," State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said yesterday.

NTV, the newspaper Segodnya, and the political magazine Itogi all part of the Media-Most empire now appear firmly under the control of Gazprom. The U.S. newsmagazine Newsweek announced yesterday it was terminating its editorial relationship with Itogi, citing the change in management control.

Gazprom´s weekend takeover of the NTV studios has also cast serious doubts on a proposed minority investment by U.S. billionaire and CNN founder Ted Turner. Gazprom officials said last week they had "serious doubts" about the Turner investment and a Turner representative said Mr. Turner was re-evaluating his offer in light of the management ouster.

U.S.-born investment banker Boris Jordan and Gazprom-Media head Alfred Kokh, a former Russian economics minister who oversaw a number of controversial privatization deals in the mid-1990s, contend Mr. Gusinsky is to blame for mismanaging his companies and failing to pay back hundreds of millions of dollars in loans guaranteed by Gazprom.

NTV was "on a fast and sure road to bankruptcy, " Mr. Jordan contended in an opinion piece in yesterday´s online edition of the Wall Street Journal.

But Mr. Fedorov said Mr. Kokh and Mr. Jordan are "famous for asset-stripping," not for any expertise in running an independent media company.

"This is scandalous; this is immoral, " Mr. Fedorov said. "These guys are mercenaries."

There was further confusion in Moscow yesterday as a group of journalists at the small TV6 network announced they were resigning rather than work with some of the leading journalists who recently quit NTV. TV6 owner Boris Berezovsky, like Mr. Gusinsky a Russian business "oligarch" who has fallen out with Mr. Putin, had agreed to hire the ex-NTV journalists.

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