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"We're Sure the Channel Is Under State Control"

From his exile at the Spanish beach resort of Sotogrande, NTV founder and Russian media mogul Vladimir Gusinsky could finally breathe a sigh of relief on Apr. 18, when the Spanish High Court ruled against his extradition to Moscow, where he faces federal fraud charges. But the ruling came too late to save the former theater director's tattered media empire.

Just days before the court's decision, state-controlled gas giant Gazprom moved in to take over NTV, the national television channel that was the crown jewel of Gusinsky's Media-Most group. Leading journalists left en masse, refusing to work for the Gazprom-installed management headed by U.S. financier Boris Jordan. They reject Gazprom's claims that the takeover was a solution to a business dispute over loans it lent the channel (see BW Online, "I Want to Remove NTV from Politics"). Instead, they see the move as a Kremlin-engineered coup to take control of NTV.

At one point during the tense power struggle, CNN founder Ted Turner announced his own plans to buy a stake in the channel, in what many saw as an attempt to help stave off Gazprom. But since the sudden seizure, Turner has retreated, saying he's reconsidering his bid.

In a telephone interview from his Sotogrande villa on Apr. 16, Gusinsky shared with BusinessWeek Moscow Correspondent Catherine Belton his views on the new management and his plans to sell his shares in the channel. He contends the state is controlling the channel, and he fears that NTV's opposition voice could be muzzled. Edited excerpts of the conversation follow:

Q: Is there any hope of fighting the Gazprom takeover of NTV in the courts?

A: What has happened so far shows we have little chance of gaining victory. It's already a different company. The leading journalists have left. We're sure the channel is under state control. We did everything possible to prevent this. But it has happened.

I want to sell my shares in NTV. I don't want to be a shareholder anymore, [and] I don't want to create a new channel. This is not my aim.

Q: Are you planning to leave the media business in Russia?

A: I'm not leaving the media business in Russia. But the state has taken away everything that was possible to take.

Q: NTV's new general director, Boris Jordan, claims that you ran NTV into the ground, that you stripped its assets, and that under your command it was never an independent voice. He says you personally dictated its editorial line in your own commercial and political interests. What is your response?

A: It isn't true that I dictated editorial policy. To be honest, I don't understand what he means. For me as a shareholder, being in conflict with the authorities is not advantageous. Criticizing the state doesn't strengthen my position. This is the best proof of all to show this isn't true.

His claims that assets were stripped and that the channel was mismanaged are [also] absolute rubbish. We are the biggest shareholders in NTV, with a 49% stake compared to Gazprom's 46% -- everyone seems to forget that.

NTV was a close sister to Media-Most, and we didn't ask for the [money] that NTV owes us. We felt it was our duty to help it. Last year under Russian accounting standards, it was in profit, but still we didn't ask for the money. Now that the main team has left and the channel has been destroyed after its hostile and illegal takeover, we're asking for that money back.

Our lawyers are drawing up the [papers]. NTV owes us $55 million out of its total debts of $95 million. We had agreed with Gazprom that neither side would call in the debts, but since Gazprom broke that by destroying the company, we're calling our share in.

Q: Jordan claims he will now attempt to rebuild the channel. Do you think he will prove to be a capable manager of the company?

A: I'm skeptical that Jordan can build the company. I'm skeptical that he can build anything. He has no knowledge of the television business.... Jordan was appointed by the state. He has always cooperated with the authorities.

Jordan has no reputation [or anything] else to lose. They choose...people who are ready to commit political suicide. Normal people with any self-respect would not take on this job [of taking over NTV]. It would be difficult to find a Russian who would do this.

But [the state] dredged him up even though he has gained notoriety for his controversial participation in privatization. Any normal person couldn't do what he has done.

Q: Jordan claims there have been no financial accounts of the channel for the past two years.

A: This is an absolute lie. Do you really think [CNN founder] Ted Turner would be even thinking of buying a stake in the channel if there were no accounts? Audits are confirmed every year by PricewaterhouseCoopers.

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