MOSCOW — Boris Berezovsky, the leading private shareholder in Russia’s Channel 1 ORT (Public Russian Television), engaged in open conflict with the Kremlin on Monday over the issue of who will manage his 49% stake in the station.
Berezovsky, a controversial political power broker, said he would hand over control of his ORT share to a select group of TV journalists and other members of Russia’s intelligentsia. In doing so, he publicly challenged President Vladimir Putin and his administration, which Berezovsky said had pressured him to pass control to the government.
Berezovsky said the final straw for the Kremlin had been ORT’s critical coverage of Putin’s behavior during August’s Kursk submarine disaster. In a subsequent interview on Russian pubcaster RTR, Putin returned fire, with a vitriolic attack on Berezovsky and Vladimir Gusinsky, whose commercial channel NTV had been equally critical.
Monday’s back-and-forth follows pressure placed earlier in the summer on NTV parent Media-Most in which Gusinsky was imprisoned and then denied the right to travel abroad; all charges have been dropped and Gusinsky now resides in Spain.
Many in Moscow expect natural resources giant Gazprom, which is 31% state-owned, to take a majority stake in Media-Most against its debts.
With NTV’s future as an independent broadcaster threatened, Berezovsky said he cannot pass control of ORT, — which would then be the only independent national broadcaster — over to the government.
However, some are skeptical of Berezovsky’s free-speech credentials and see the latest announcement as another step in a protracted bargaining campaign.
Nevertheless, Media-Most announced its public support for the statement, though denying details of alleged dealings with Gazprom.