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Russia: Berezovsky's Dismissal Of Editor Seen As Move To Boost Political Power

  • Sophie Lambroschini

Russia's oldest independent newspaper, "Nezavisimaya gazeta," named Tatyana Kocharyova editor in chief at a shareholders' meeting today. She replaces Vitaly Tretyakov, the paper's founder and former editor in chief. Tretyakov was dismissed this week by the paper's owner, media magnate Boris Berezovsky. Analysts say the move is part of an overall strategy by Berezovsky aimed at improving his leverage as a Kremlin oppositionist. RFE/RL's Moscow correspondent Sophie Lambroschini looks at this and other recent developments in Russia's troubled media market.

Moscow, 8 June 2001 (RFE/RL) -- It has been two months since Russia's gas monopoly Gazprom assumed control of NTV, the country's only private nationwide network, in a widely protested takeover. Since then, Russia's few remaining owners of media companies have been scrambling to shore up their resources in an attempt to stay on the market.

The latest turn of events came this week, when media magnate Boris Berezovsky dismissed Vitaly Tretyakov, the founder and editor in chief of "Nezavisimaya gazeta," Russia's oldest independent newspaper. Berezovsky's United Bank holds 80 percent of shares in the paper.

Russian media sources report that Tatyana Kocharyova was elected the new editor in chief of "Nezavisimaya gazeta" during a shareholders meeting today. When Berezovsky owned ORT television, Kocharyova ran its news department prior to Russia's 1999 parliamentary elections, when television stations were openly engaged in partisan mud-slinging campaigns.

Berezovsky -- who has been living in self-imposed exile in Europe since falling out with the Kremlin after last year's presidential elections -- said his decision was financially motivated. He told journalists the newspaper was costing him "hundreds of thousands of dollars" a month. He also said the paper should be revamped in order to attract readers from what he called "the more active part of today's Russia -- those who have started to live independently, the middle class."

Berezovsky also claimed that the publication was editorially too close in content to his other newspaper, "Kommersant." But while "Kommersant" is a business-oriented daily, "Nezavisimaya gazeta" -- which literally means "independent newspaper" -- features longer, analytical articles on a range of subjects. Under Tretyakov's leadership, the paper reflected a diverse range of political and ideological beliefs, both supportive and critical of the Kremlin.

The paper is also well-known for its opinion section and in-depth coverage of issues like religion, the armed forces, literature, and the Russian regions.

Launched by Tretyakov and a group of young journalists in 1990, "Nezavisimaya gazeta" struggled with chronic financial problems before being purchased by Berezovsky in 1995.

Speaking to RFE/RL following his dismissal, Tretyakov -- who has held pro-Kremlin views in many of his past editorials -- called Berezovsky's decision "political" and said the paper's ideology would necessarily change:

"Obviously [the political line of the paper] will change -- otherwise, why would he want to replace the editor in chief? [Until now] it has always been my line nearly all the time, and especially lately. Boris Berezovsky did not interfere with the political line of the paper -- it was my own."

In an interview with NTV, Tretyakov said Berezovsky would probably opt to use "Nezavisimaya gazeta" "more as a party paper."

Many analysts agree that Berezovsky dismissed Tretyakov seeking to bolster his own image as an "oppositionist." Last month, Berezovsky said he was working to create a party opposed to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Analysts say that in order to accomplish his goal, Berezovsky needs a paper willing to promote his views, but that the famously strong-willed Tretyakov would never agree to such an arrangement.

A front-page article in the "Vremya Novostei" daily noted that "only a blind person would have failed to see that the paper ["Nezavisimaya gazeta"] and Berezovsky -- who threw himself into the opposition -- were following different paths." Using Tretyakov to attack the Kremlin, the paper added, would be like trying "to pound in nails with a saw."

While acknowledging the political undertones to Tretyakov's dismissal, RFE/RL's Russian media analyst Anna Kachkayeva was more cautious in her evaluation of the situation: "Of course, we have to remember that Berezovsky earned his bread neither through media, nor through 'business' in the classic sense. But whatever 'Nezavisimaya gazeta's' new political course may be, it will only become clear once [today's] shareholders' meeting determines who the new director [as well as the] editor in chief of the publication will be."

Berezovsky's dismissal of Tretyakov appears to be the latest in a series of recent moves to regain his political footing in Moscow.

Once a Kremlin insider widely believed to have orchestrated top government decisions under former President Boris Yeltsin, Berezovsky fell from grace after Putin was elected president in March 2000. He has subsequently lived in self-imposed exile in Europe, managing his businesses from abroad and slowly working to rebuild his image at home.

Most recently, Berezovsky has attempted to re-invent himself as a champion of human rights, creating a special $15 million fund to finance free media and other social initiatives.

But analysts say his strongest move so far was giving jobs at his TV-6 station to the team of NTV journalists who resigned in protest of Gazprom's takeover of the network earlier this year (April).

The former NTV journalists -- who for now provide TV-6 with news and satirical programming -- have boosted the station's nationwide ratings from 5.2 to 5.6 percent. NTV's ratings, while still higher, have dropped two points to 11 percent.

Media analyst Alexey Pankin said the main lesson to be learned by this turn of events is that the more things change, the more they stay the same -- with people like Berezovsky still using their media outlets to promote their political views:

"As far as I can see, the result of these events is that Berezovsky has become -- or has almost become -- a more respectable figure than he was some time ago, in the sense that he has successfully shown himself to be an active Russian politician and media mogul. At least he is back in the news, and people are beginning to see him again as a serious figure."

Another Russian media outlet, meanwhile, is continuing its fight for independence -- radio station Ekho Moskvy, which like NTV is part of Vladimir Gusinsky's crumbling Media-MOST empire.

When Gazprom's takeover of Media-MOST appeared imminent, Ekho Moskvy journalists -- who held a 28 percent stake in the station -- began negotiating with both Gazprom and Gusinsky to receive additional shares in hopes of gaining a controlling stake in what they called "their" radio station.

Last week, Gusinsky agreed to hand over his remaining shares in the radio -- 14.5 percent -- to the journalists for free. Ekho Moskvy, unlike NTV, was not created by Gusinsky. Launched in 1990 by a group of journalists, the country's first private radio station eventually sold part of its shares to the media magnate in 1994.

With Gusinsky's stake, Ekho Moskvy journalists now hold a 42.5-percent share in the station. Gazprom holds a blocking stake of 25 plus one share.

Media-MOST still holds a 25 percent share that has been frozen by a Moscow court as part of the ongoing legal battle between the gas monopoly and the media company.

Gazprom is expected to receive these shares this summer as reimbursement for unpaid loans. It is also likely to receive blocking stakes in other Media-MOST outlets like the NTV-Plus cable network. Ekho Moskvy journalists are now hoping to acquire a 9 percent share from Gazprom -- leaving them with a 51.6 percent controlling stake in the radio station. They then hope to sell the entire stake to an international investor to generate funds and ensure that the station remains independent.

The Duma's softening this week on a bill restricting foreign ownership of Russian media might help make this possible.

The Duma information committee recommended earlier this week to impose a 50 percent foreign ownership limit only on nationwide television stations.

The bill, which is expected to be submitted to parliament later this month, would leave foreigners free to buy controlling stakes in electronic and print media outlets in Russia.

Meanwhile, the new, Gazprom-controlled NTV says it would consider selling a non-controlling share to what station General Director Boris Jordan called a "foreign strategic investor." Speaking at a news conference in St. Petersburg on 6 June, Jordan admitted that NTV's new management was struggling to remedy the station's dire financial situation. He said management was considering issuing $70-$80 million worth of shares to help soak up NTV's debts.