- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 8, 2001

The Russian natural gas monopoly Gazprom, locked in a bitter battle for control of the country's biggest independent television network, would support a takeover bid led by CNN founder Ted Turner and financier George Soros, a top Gazprom official said yesterday.
But Alfred Kokh, a former Kremlin official who now heads Gazprom's media subsidiary, said during a visit to Washington his firm would continue pressing for control of the NTV network if rescue bids from the West fall through.
"It is wrong to assume that we are trying to muzzle the mass media in Russia," Mr. Kokh said. "We are just trying to save our investment."
Dmitry Ostalsky, spokesman for the Media-Most empire, which controls NTV, said yesterday in Moscow that the Turner-Soros consortium had presented a formal bid for the network last weekend.
The battle for control of NTV has been widely seen as a test case of press freedom under Russian President Vladimir Putin. The station, the crown jewel of Russian oligarch Vladimir Gusinsky's Media-Most, has been a persistent critic of Mr. Putin.
The concern has grown so intense that Mr. Kokh met for 90 minutes yesterday with senior Bush administration officials at the White House to present his side of the story and deny any ambitions to curtail NTV's independent stance.
Mr. Gusinsky, currently in Spain fighting extradition to Russia, has been battling to retain control of Media-Most even as he has fought aggressive attempts by Russian federal prosecutors to bring him to trial on fraud charges.
Mr. Gusinsky has desperately sought foreign investors for his debt-ridden company, while contending that Gazprom's takeover bid and the legal campaign against him were politically motivated.
In Moscow, the Media-Most spokesman provided no details of the Turner-Soros bailout offer, but the Wall Street Journal reported Monday that the investor group, which originally was seeking a minority stake in Media-Most, now wants as much as 60 percent of the holding company.
Mr. Gusinsky "received the offer over the weekend and discussions are still in progress," Mr. Ostalsky said.
Mr. Kokh said yesterday he had had no direct contacts with the Turner-Soros consortium, with all negotiations being handled through the two parties' investment bankers.
"We would very much like Mr. Turner to succeed with his investment," Mr. Kokh said. "We would also not rule out other outside investors if they would consider making a bid."
Mr. Turner is vice chairman of the AOL Time Warner conglomerate, although he is making the offer for Media-Most as a private investor. Mr. Soros, a New York-based financier, has included media interests among his massive philanthropic activities abroad, including funding the Open Media Institute and subsidizing an Albanian newspaper.
U.S. press-freedom activists have said a minority Western interest in NTV would not be enough to ensure the station's independent editorial line.
Minority investors particularly Western ones have long complained that Russian corporate laws give minority shareholders few rights and little influence over Russian companies.
Mr. Putin himself has met separately with Mr. Kokh and with journalists and editors at NTV to discuss the standoff. In both meetings, he insisted that he supported freedom of the press, and that the dispute between Gazprom and Media-Most was a commercial fight in which the government would not get involved.
But skepticism in Russia about the Kremlin's role is deep. Gazprom, the country's largest natural gas supplier, has close ties to the government, and Mr. Kokh has known Mr. Putin from their days in the early 1990s in the municipal government in St. Petersburg.
"If everybody in Russia believed that this was just a financial battle over NTV, that would be one thing," said Yegor Gaidar, co-chairman of Russia's pro-market Union of Right Forces party, in a Washington speech earlier this year. "But the vast majority of Russians don't believe that."
Gazprom, in which the Russian government has a 38 percent stake, holds 46 percent of NTV's shares, and the company said recent loan defaults by Media-Most have given the gas giant effective control of the station.
Mr. Kokh said Mr. Gusinsky's charges were an attempt to deflect attention from his own mismanagement.
"As soon as we tried to assert control of Media-Most to make the business sound and get our money back, we were accused of being used by the government going after the only independent media company in the country," he said.
"There's no need to say who is behind this campaign the shareholders of Media-Most who don't want to lose control of what they have."
Mr. Kokh, who joined Gazprom's media subsidiary last year, instead painted a picture of financial chaos under Mr. Gusinsky's leadership a record, he said, of loan defaults, murky auditing practices, mismanagement and corporate shell games that have brought Media-Most to the brink of bankruptcy.
Mr. Kokh said consultants hired by Gazprom had found that Mr. Gusinsky had even sold the NTV brand name to another company in which Gazprom has no financial interest. The network leases back the rights to its own name.
"It's an absurdity," said Mr. Kokh. "Imagine if the Coca-Cola Co. had to rent its own brand name from another firm. Imagine the reaction of the shareholders."

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