Arrest Warrant Out for Media Chief
The prosecutor general issued an arrest warrant on fraud charges Monday for the head of Russia’s largest independent media group, which is often critical of the Kremlin, after the tycoon failed to show up here for interrogation.
Vladimir A. Gusinsky, chief of Media-Most, spent three days in jail during the summer and once more faces arrest and possibly jail. Media-Most spokesman Dmitri Ostalsky said Gusinsky was in Europe, but gave no further details.
Gusinsky’s lawyers argue that he is the victim of a political campaign. The tycoon claims that the Kremlin has been trying to force him to surrender control of his media group.
Media-Most outlets have been particularly critical of the Kremlin for its policies in the rebel republic of Chechnya and its handling of the sinking of the Kursk nuclear submarine in August. Media watchdogs here see the struggle over control of the group as part of a Kremlin campaign to pull independent media into line.
The Kremlin is widely perceived in Russia as using the prosecutor general’s office to pursue several tycoons, including Gusinsky and Boris A. Berezovsky, who has exerted control over the nation’s biggest TV network, ORT.
Berezovsky, who turned ORT against the Kremlin over the summer, has been summoned by the prosecutor general for questioning Wednesday. Officials have indicated that he could be charged with embezzlement.
Berezovsky’s control over the majority state-owned ORT seems to have diminished recently after several of his allies in the company were removed.
The new action against Gusinsky came just days after Media-Most reached a deal with the Russian gas giant, Gazprom, resolving a dispute concerning the media group’s debt to the monopoly. Details are still secret, but the agreement reportedly involves the transfer of Media-Most shares to Gazprom to settle a $212-million debt incurred after Gazprom guaranteed loans to the media group.
Gazprom is 38% state-owned, and there is speculation that the Kremlin could exert influence over Media-Most if the gas monopoly takes control of it.
But Ostalsky said that, unlike under an earlier deal later repudiated by Gusinsky, Gazprom will not get control with the new agreement.
“I can only tell you at this point that Media-Most will not lose control over its media organizations as a result of this agreement. The agreement doesn’t touch upon their editorial or personnel policy either,” Ostalsky said.
According to Russian media reports, Gazprom will get 16% of Gusinsky’s national television network, NTV, and 25% plus one share in all other Media-Most companies.
The prosecutor general argues that Gusinsky is guilty of fraud because his companies were legally bankrupt when they took out the loans guaranteed by Gazprom.
Leonid Troshin, spokesman for the prosecutor general’s office, said the deal between Gazprom and Media-Most, which awaits court approval in coming days, “may be regarded as a PR action to shield Gusinsky from prosecution.”
Gusinsky’s lawyer, Genri Reznik, told reporters that his client did not return to Moscow for interrogation because he feared arrest and persecution.
The tycoon was arrested and jailed in June for alleged embezzlement in a St. Petersburg privatization deal but was released after three days. Barred from leaving the country, he signed a confidential deal in July agreeing to surrender control of Media-Most to Gazprom.
In September, he publicly repudiated the deal, saying it was made under duress with the embezzlement charges hanging over his head.
Ostalsky said it was absurd that the prosecutor general was pursuing the charges against Gusinsky when Media-Most and Gazprom had reached a deal. He accused the prosecutor’s office of pursuing a vendetta because of a story NTV ran during the summer claiming that the prosecutor general, Vladimir Ustinov, had received a $430,000 Moscow apartment from the Kremlin without paying taxes on it.