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Russia: New Twist To Gazprom-Gusinsky Battle

Vladimir Gusinsky's Media-MOST group, which includes Russia's main private TV channel and other media often critical of the Kremlin, has again come under pressure from the government. Yesterday, the natural gas giant Gazprom -- partly owned by the government -- said that Gusinsky was trying to hide assets that he had agreed to turn over to a Gazprom subsidiary to settle Media-MOST debts to the company. Gusinsky, in turn, accused authorities of extortion. RFE/RL's Moscow correspondent Sophie Lambroschini reports.

Moscow, 19 September 2000 (RFE/RL ) -- The ongoing conflict between business tycoon Vladimir Gusinsky, head of the private media holding Media-MOST, and Russian authorities has taken a new twist.

Gazprom, the partly government-owned giant gas monopoly, accused Gusinsky yesterday of breaking an agreement over the sale of his media empire. With that, Gusinsky accused Russian authorities of Mafia-style extortion methods and said he would not honor a July 20 sale contract with Gazprom.

Gusinsky explained that he would not fulfill the part of the agreement over the sale of his stock holdings. It was invalid, he said, because it had been extorted from him "at gunpoint." He said that he has a video recording of the signing to confirm this.

The agreement was signed two months ago when Gusinsky was still under fraud charges, for which he spent several days in jail. The charges were subsequently dropped.

Gazprom accuses Media-MOST of not complying with the July 20 agreement and of hiding assets off-shore in order not to comply with its obligations. According to the agreement, Gazprom and Gusinsky agreed to the sale of Media-MOST for $300 million, plus the writing-off of a debt of $473 million in bank loans to Media-MOST that had been guaranteed by Gazprom. But according to Media-MOST, a secret appendix to the agreement -- aired on its television channel NTV yesterday -- spells out what the channel and other media allege to be "blackmail."

The Russian daily "Sevodnya" -- also owned by Media-MOST-- today published the alleged secret appendix, known as protocol "number six." The paper charged it was signed by Alfred Kokh, Gazprom's media branch head, and by Information Minister Mikhail Lesin.

According to the published text, if the stock transfer agreement is broken, the parties are "freed of their obligation" to guarantee Gusinsky safety and the defense of his rights and freedoms. The text also implies that Gusinsky took upon himself the obligation not to "discredit" state institutions.

Gazprom's Kokh admitted today at a news conference that he and Information Minister Lesin had indeed signed protocol number six. But he denied that Gusinsky had signed it under pressure.

"Concerning the sixth protocol -- yes, I did sign it. We considered that under the conditions of last July, it was necessary to receive precise and clear promises from the parties that the agreement was being signed without any pressure."

Kokh also said the agreement was a purely financial deal. He suggested that Gazprom wants to buy Media-MOST not as a way of suppressing private television but because it's a good investment.

The accusations of blackmail are consistent with earlier suspicions that Gusinsky had been released from jail on June 17 in exchange for the sale of his Media-MOST stock. After all charges against him were dropped five weeks later -- and one week after the agreement was signed -- Gusinsky immediately left Russia and kept an unusually low profile. He remained silent, while for weeks before his press group had repeatedly accused the Kremlin of pressure to silence their critical reports. One of the alleged methods of applying pressure was the use of Russian Media-MOST's debt to Gazprom.

Many politicians from different shades of the spectrum today expressed shock over the latest revelations. The liberal Yabloko State Duma faction said it would request an investigation into the affair. Communist party boss Gennady Zyuganov spoke of what he called his "disgust" with the state's methods of "forcibly extracting money" from private firms.

The NTV public council, an advisory body headed by former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, also said it was shocked by the alleged methods applied by the authorities to strike a deal over the sale of Media-MOST. Gorbachev called the agreement "glaring evidence [of] state blackmail," and requested a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin to discuss the matter.

"Does President Putin know about all this? We have to help the president to work in the spirit of the mandate he got from the people and not according to the contracts of some groups. And I think this is our common responsibility."

Some media expressed fear that the Gazprom-Gusinsky agreement was fresh proof of Russian authorities' determination to crack down on free media. The daily "Izvestia" -- a paper that is not controlled by Gusinsky -- said that the alleged blackmail could mean one of two things: "Either the Russian Constitution was banned and we were not informed about it, or it contains a special secret protocol where basic rights and freedoms are implemented only after signing a special agreement [such as Gusinsky's with Gazprom]."