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Russia: Gazprom's Expansion Plans Extend To Media

Gazprom took over the NTV television channel in 2001 (epa) Watching the Kremlin tighten its grip on Russia's Channel One and RTR television stations -- and the media arm of the state-controlled Gazprom energy giant devouring once-independent NTV -- many bemoaned the end of independent television in Russia. For a while, though, it seemed other media might be left a degree of freedom. But now print journalism appears to be under threat as well. Gazprom-Media is now rumored to have its eyes on at least two other major publications.

PRAGUE, May 2, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- As rallies go, it was a rather dreary, desultory affair -- and not just because of the dull April weather.

The cream of Moscow's journalists gathered in Pushkin Square April 16 to mark the fifth anniversary of the takeover of NTV by the state-controlled Gazprom-Media.

But no more than 1,000 people felt it important enough to join them.

State Control

Since President Vladimir Putin came to power, the state has used its tight control of the electronic media to stifle debate and control the supply of information. But there has been little popular resistance.

The fear now is that the Kremlin is moving to extinguish the few remaining candles of independent light.

First in line could be the print media. Regional newspapers have long been brought into line, but a few central newspapers have retained an independent voice.

Like the small-circulation "Izvestia," which in early 2005 changed its style, introducing a weekend magazine and starting a lively two-page opinion and editorial page.

In June 2005, Gazprom-Media bought a controlling stake in the paper.

Masha Gessen, an independent journalist who once worked for "Itogi," a current affairs magazine also swallowed by Gazprom-Media, says the paper has changed beyond recognition -- and not for the better.

"There's been a marked change in both editorial and staffing policy," Gessen says. "It's really a different newspaper. It seems to have lost its whole identity and not gained a new one. It has become an official newspaper that is a reliable mouthpiece for the Kremlin, like 'Komsomolskaya pravda,' which has been edited by the same person who is now editing 'Izvestia.'"

But why buy "Izvestia," a paper with a circulation of around 250,000 and no great commercial value? Whatever happened to Gazprom's promise in 2001, when it took over NTV, to divest itself of all but core assets as soon as it possibly could?

Gessen believes the answer lies in politics. She says she sees Gazprom-Media as a tool of the Kremlin.

"What is going on here is there's a [presidential] election coming up in 2008 and the Kremlin clearly feels it needs to take control over the remaining print media, now that they have complete control over the electronic media," Gessen said. "Things keep going in the same direction and it's intensified because of the election coming up."

Ownership Speculations

Which would at least partly explain as well the growing speculation over the future ownership of the "Kommersant" newspaper -- which has a low circulation but influential readership -- and the biggest fish in the Russian print pool, "Komsomolskaya pravda." Its daily readership of around 8 million makes it far and away the biggest newspaper in the country.

Gazprom-Media has been linked to both, although it has denied that it has made a bid for either.

Oleg Panfilov is the director of the Center for Journalism in Extreme Situations in Moscow -- a title which speaks volumes for his view of the state of the media in Russia.

He shares the view that the Kremlin is limbering up for the 2008 elections. But he thinks Gazprom is hesitant about entering the media market again -- and for political reasons.

"I think the authorities are conducting a political game in which on the one hand they want a controlled press but on the other have certain obligations to the European Union and the G8. And so a small part of the free press will be allowed to remain in order to create the image of a more or less free state. It's another matter of course that this small part of the press has no influence on public opinion," Panfilov says.

Maybe so, but that hasn't stopped another state player making a bid for "Kommersant." Last week Russian Railways director Vladimir Yakunin said his company was in the running to take over the newspaper.

But what's abnormal about that? As Gessen notes, there are any number of countries where large industrial holdings have media branches, including newspapers: "Sweden is such a country, where every other daily newspaper is somehow or other associated with one or another of the industrial families."

But there is one big difference which reflects the evolution of the contemporary Russian state: "In Russia things are shaping up the same way, except that the problem is that these are not just large industrial holdings, they're controlled by the state."

As things stand, there's not a lot left of Russia's central independent media: a couple of daily papers and a few weekly magazines. If other state companies really do join Gazprom in buying into the media, their days may soon be numbered too.