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Russia: Gazprom Puts Pressure On Media-Most

The arrest last week of Russian tycoon Vladimir Gusinsky was not the last blow for his media empire, Media-Most. The company's Achilles heel is its shaky financial health, and one of its main backers, the gas monopoly Gazprom, is now calling in a large loan. RFE/RL's Sophie Lambroschini looks at the pressure on Gazprom to withdraw support for Media-Most.

Moscow, 23 June 2000 (RFE/RL) -- In the week since Vladimir Gusinsky's arrest, President Vladimir Putin has met twice with Gazprom head Rem Vyakhirev.

The Kremlin has long been irritated by the criticism of Putin in Media-Most newspapers and television shows. With financial control of at least a third of Media-Most, Gazprom has an important say in the company's future. Observers are now watching to see which way the gas monopoly is leaning. Towards the Kremlin? Or towards Media-Most?

Gazprom already owns 14 percent of Media-Most, and over the past year, it has handed the media holding several hundreds of millions of dollars in loans. One of these loans -- for $211 million -- expired in March, and the collateral for it is another 20 percent of the company.

In the aftermath of Gusinsky's arrest, Putin clearly expressed his irritation with Vyakhirev's loans to Media-Most, saying, "I don't understand why Gazprom should spend money on this problem." The next day Putin also pointed out that Gazprom is partly (38 percent) state-owned, implying that Russian authorities should have a say in how Gazprom spends its money.

At least part of Gazprom's leadership says it is now negotiating an immediate repayment of the loan. Alfred Kokh, the head of the Gazprom subsidiary that controls its media investments, made the announcement this week (Wednesday).

"We have not yet demanded our collateral, and we are not sure that we want to. First and foremost, we want to get paid back in money. That's why we're having negotiations with Media-Most. If we see that 20 percent of stakes are worth $211 million, then we will take these stakes. If we see that it's not worth it, then we will work out schemes on how to get cash." Using Gazprom's financial hold over Media-Most as a way to get at Gusinsky's group is not a new tactic. Last fall, the possibility was raised that Gazprom would call the loan. And last April, when the same issue came up, Media-Most lashed out. Its press spokesman Dmitry Ostalsky said bluntly: "The Kremlin sees Gazprom's relationship with us as a serious obstacle to its aim of turning the mass media into an organ of mass state propaganda."

Media investment adviser Onno Zonneveld says that attacking Gusinsky could be an attempt to sabotage Media-Most's efforts to find a foreign investor, by compromising the group as a safe investment.

The Kremlin has reason to be displeased with Gazprom head Vyakhirev for his continued support of the opposition-minded media company. But Vyakhirev has been coasting on a string of recent successes, such as Gazprom agreements with German gas companies and a promising pipeline project (Blue Stream). And until now, his position has been unassailable -- the Gazprom president can only be removed by a unanimous decision of the board.

But that stipulation will soon change. A Gazprom representative said yesterday that an upcoming amendment to the gas monopoly's statutes (article 37.2) will make it possible to dismiss the president by a simple majority vote by shareholders. The next shareholders' meeting is set for the end of next week (June 30).

Pressure on Gazprom could take many forms. Gazprom has regularly been suspected of funneling millions in revenue out of the country through elaborate off-shore schemes -- the government could choose to investigate those allegations.

Or, as "Vedomosti," a prominent Russian business daily suggests, authorities may be planning to use Gazprom's media subsidiary to expand their influence over Russian media outlets. Gazprom-media, headed by Kokh, was resuscitated last week by a new board of directors, partly composed of people reportedly close to the Kremlin.

RFE/RL media analyst Anna Kachkaeva says that competitors are interested in acquiring many of Gusinsky's businesses, notably the regional TNT television network. She says it is no coincidence that Gazprom-media was reanimated last week. "It cannot be excluded that Gazprom-media will become the structure where in case of a negative turn of events for Media-Most, Gusinsky's outlets may be poured into."

It is unclear, however, to what extent the announcement by Gazprom-media head Kokh about calling in Media-Most's loan reflects Gazprom's position as a whole -- and influential Vyakhirev's in particular. Gazprom-media is only a very small part of the Gazprom group. And according to Gazprom's board of directors, the document relaunching Gazprom-media was signed not by Vyakhirev, but by his deputy, while Vyakhirev himself was away from Moscow.