Making moves in Moscow

Russian gov't-backed Gazprom eyes Media-Most takeover

MOSCOW — A subsidiary of Russian natural resources giant Gazprom made moves Tuesday to reclaim debts of $211 million from media company Media-Most — and thus make a bid for control of the country’s leading broadcaster.

The development came a day after Media-Most’s head Vladimir Gusinsky, currently in exile in Spain, confirmed in an interview to his Moscow-based Ekho Moskvy radio station that he had signed a contract July 20 agreeing to sell Media-Most and its associated companies to Gazprom subsid Gazprom Media.

But Gusinsky added that two days before that contract date, on July 18, he had declared in the presence of foreign lawyers that he was signing the deal under pressure — “You could say at gunpoint,” he said — and that therefore the agreement had no value.

Gusinsky spent three days in a Moscow jail in June before he was unexpectedly released. Charges against him were surprisingly dropped six days after he put his signature to the July 20 contract, and he flew to Spain from Russia the same night.

The July developments had many in Moscow speculating that Gusinsky had signed away control of his media and TV empire, which has been continually critical of Russian president Vladimir Putin, in return for his freedom.

With the Russian government holding a controlling 31% stake in Gazprom, any such acquisition would effectively see control of Russia’s leading channel NTV pass into the hands of the Kremlin.

Text of the July 20 contract, which was posted on a Web site, saw Gusinsky agreeing to sell Media-Most to Gazprom Media for $773 million. The figure presupposed a $300 million cash payment together with the write-off of $473 million in existing Media-Most debts pledged by Gazprom to Credit Suisse First Boston.

The CSFB loan was in two tranches. The first, for $211 million, came due in March and was redeemed by Gazprom.

Gazprom chief Rem Vyachirev went public on the issue Monday, saying that Gusinsky had refused Sept. 9 to follow through on necessary procedures for the deal’s completion.

He also claimed that Gusinsky had used the intervening time to transfer control of assets previously controlled by Media-Most to offshore companies, controlled by Gusinsky or figures related to him, many based in Gibraltar.

A Media-Most spokesman told local press that Gazprom’s accusations are a ploy in ongoing negotiations between Media-Most players and Gazprom Media chief Alfred Kokh.

Media-Most is apparently ready to hand over control of a stake in a number of its companies, but not a controlling share, to settle its overdue debt of $211 million.

NTV managing director Yevgeny Kiselyev confirmed that Gusinsky’s top deputy Igor Malashenko had met with Kokh in London Sept. 13 to discuss the issue.

Former Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev, who agreed to head NTV’s public advisory council after armed raids on Media-Most’s Moscow offices in May, called Tuesday for a meeting with Russian president Vladimir Putin to discuss recent developments.

Speaking of “state blackmail tactics,” Gorbachev suggested that Putin may not be aware of actions being carried out by his administration.

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