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Russia: Prosecutors Charge Media-MOST Magnate Gusinsky

The ongoing conflict between Russian media magnate Vladimir Gusinsky and the government took a new twist today. Russia's Prosecutor-General's Office issued an arrest warrant for Gusinsky, the head of the Media-MOST conglomerate, charging him with embezzlement. RFE/RL Moscow correspondent brings us up to date.

Moscow, 13 November 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Prosecutors today pressed charges against financier Vladimir Gusinsky, the head of Russia's biggest private media group, Media-MOST. They accused Gusinsky of defrauding the state-controlled gas giant Gazprom.

But, oddly, the charges came just as Gazprom and Media-MOST announced they had come to a peaceful agreement. The timing spurred speculation about the prosecutor general's motives.

The prosecutor's office did not actually specify in regard to which case Gusinsky was being charged. But Deputy Prosecutor-General Vasily Kolmogorov said earlier his office would charge Gusinsky with fraud in Media-MOST's dealings with Gazprom.

Kolmogorov accuses Media-MOST of having illegally received a loan on the basis of non-existent assets. He also charges the group with having hidden some of its assets in order to protect them from being confiscated as payment for debts owed to Gazprom.

Not for the first time in recent months, Gusinsky today failed to appear before prosecutors for questioning. His lawyer, Genri Reznik, says Gusinsky is now "in Europe."

"The thing is, Gusinsky believes he is being charged for political motives. This is related to his position on the independence of the mass media and freedom of speech."

A Media-MOST press release said the charges could represent "personal revenge" by the prosecutor general's office for compromising material broadcast by NTV, a Media-MOST television channel. NTV has repeatedly aired reports on prosecutor general Vladimir Ustinov allegedly receiving an apartment in central Moscow illegally from the Kremlin.

But Media-MOST also holds out another possibility to explain the odd timing of today's charges. It notes the prosecutor's decision came only one day before the group is expected to sign a formal agreement with its main creditor, Gazprom. Indeed, earlier today, both sides had already announced that an accord in principle had been reached and signed Saturday (Nov 11) to settle the media group's debts to the gas company.

The full agreement, which was due to be signed tomorrow (Tuesday), is expected to specify the conditions under which Media-MOST will transfer some of its stock to Gazprom in repayment of a $211-million debt. After the agreement is legally authorized in court, its full details are expected to made public later tomorrow.

Media-MOST spokesman Dmitry Ostalsky suggested today that the timing of the prosecutor's charges might be an attempt by unspecified officials to, in Ostalsky's word, "wreck" the peaceful agreement between the two partners. He told our correspondent:

"It's entirely possible that the prosecutor general's office is being used by someone -- by some forces in the Kremlin, whom we can call the party of war, which are unhappy the relations between Gazprom and Media-MOST have been normalized. [That group] would have preferred to see Gusinsky physically detained and stripped of his business."

For the past several months, Media-MOST has accused state authorities of using the group's debts as a way to pressure Gusinsky into giving up NTV. The group says its debts are merely a pretext, while the real reason behind the actions are attempts to muzzle privately owned media.

Gusinsky was jailed briefly five months ago on embezzlement charges in another case that has since been closed. At the time (July 20), while still under fraud charges, Gusinsky signed an agreement by which he handed over his stake in Media Most as repayment for the debt.

But in September, Gusinsky suddenly pulled out of the July agreement, saying it had been extorted from him "at gunpoint" as a condition for his freedom. Under the July agreement, Gazprom agreed to buy Media-MOST for $300 million, and to cover a debt of $473 million, in exchange for Gusinsky's shares.

Alfred Kokh, the head of Gazprom media -- Gazprom's media branch -- says the negotiations leading to Saturday's accord between the gas giant and Media-MOST were "positive." Ostalsky, the media group's spokesman, says the new agreement's conditions will, in his words, satisfy Media-MOST.