Russia’s State Natural Gas Monopoly Buys Controlling Stake in ‘Izvestia’

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(AP) Russian state-controlled natural gas monopoly Gazprom announced Friday that it had bought a 50.17 percent stake in one of Russia’s oldest newspapers — the Izvestia daily. The move has been seen as another step toward the Kremlin’s control of Russia’s privately held media, though Gazprom said no immediate changes were planned.

The details of the purchase, from metals tycoon Vladimir Potanin’s media wing, were not disclosed, though market players polled before the announcement put the value of the deal at between $10 million and $20 million. The paper has a daily print run of over 230,000.

“For us … it was of great importance to acquire a respected publication like Izvestia,” said Nikolai Senkevich, general director of Gazprom Media — the gas producer’s media wing — in a statement Friday. “In so doing we have covered virtually the last segment of the market where our holding was not present.”

Senkevich said an analysis of the paper would be undertaken before any personnel or administrative changes were made.

Observers had suggested that Potanin might be seeking to ditch the paper to stay on the right side of President Vladimir Putin’s Kremlin. Potanin’s fellow billionaire oligarch, oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, was sentenced to nine years in prison Tuesday for fraud and tax evasion in what observers say was punishment for his political ambitions.

The general director of Potanin’s Prof-Media group, Rafael Akopov, said that the sale was part of the holding’s strategy. “The holding is moving toward less politicized, entertaining media,” he said in the statement.

While Gazprom was used as the tool to wrest control of the fiercely Kremlin-critical NTV television station from its exiled media tycoon Vladimir Gusinsky, some suggest the paper under Gazprom wouldn’t shed its liberal credentials entirely.

In a note to investors the United Financial Group brokerage pointed out Friday that NTV under Gazprom, along with its Ekho Moskvy radio station, had remained “relatively liberal outlets.”

“Izvestia under Gazprom ownership can be expected to head in the same direction,” the brokerage said. “The strategy behind the expansion of Gazprom’s media business appears to be providing a softer, less propagandistic political line more palatable to the educated public and designed to dispose that part of the electorate toward continuity when it comes to the next round of elections.”

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