- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 30, 2001

U.S. financier George Soros said yesterday he has joined a group headed by CNN founder Ted Turner seeking to buy a crucial share of Russia's largest private television network.

The financial brawl for control of the Moscow-based NTV network and its parent company, Media-Most, has become a test case for freedom of the press in Russia under President Vladimir Putin.

Media-Most founder Vladimir Gusinsky, now under house arrest in Spain as he battles prosecutors demanding he return to Moscow to face fraud charges, is fighting for control of the company with Gazprom, the giant Russian natural-gas monopoly that has close ties to the Kremlin.

"I am ready to join the Ted Turner syndicate in order to ensure that NTV remains an independent media," Mr. Soros told reporters yesterday at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. The financier's interest was first reported by the Wall Street Journal.

NTV under Mr. Gusinsky has been the one national television network willing to criticize the Kremlin on such sensitive issues as the war in Chechnya and official corruption, often angering top Russian officials with its reporting.

But Media-Most under Mr. Gusinsky has also run up substantial debts. Gazprom's media subsidiary already controls about 46 percent of the company, and is demanding another 19 percent share in compensation for guaranteeing a $262 million loan that Mr. Gusinsky has been unable to honor.

The Turner-Soros investment of $300 million would effectively block any takeover.

Mr. Putin wrote Mr. Turner on Jan. 23 saying he welcomed foreign investment in Russian companies, but offering none of the guarantees Mr. Turner requested that Media-Most would remain independent.

Russian federal prosecutors have aggressively pursued Mr. Gusinsky's tangled finances, staging multiple raids on Media-Most offices and interrogating a leading NTV news commentator on Friday.

Mr. Putin held a stormy three-hour meeting yesterday with leading NTV journalists, including news anchors and the writer of a political satire show that regularly lampoons the president.

NTV General Director Yevgeny Kiselyov told reporters in Moscow after the meeting that Mr. Putin "came out for the preservation of the journalistic staff of NTV so that the television channel will stay in its present form."

But he added: "To what extent he convinced us that's a different question."

Mr. Putin said the problems of Media-Most, which also owns an influential newspaper and a popular Moscow radio station, are legal and financial, and that the president has no role in a battle between two private companies.

But Yegor Gaidar, co-chairman of the pro-market Union of Right Forces party in the Russian State Duma, said in a Washington speech yesterday that the fight has inevitably taken on implications for the future of Russian democracy.

"If everybody in Russia believed that this was just a financial battle over NTV, that would be one thing," he told a conference at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "But the vast majority of Russians don't believe that."

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