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Gaidamak Takes Over Moskovskiye Novosti

Moskovskiye Novosti, a flagship of the liberal press from the time of perestroika that is now suffering a deep editorial crisis, has an unexpected new owner.

Arkady Gaidamak, a Moscow-born businessman with four passports and a controversial past, confirmed to Ekho Moskvy radio late Friday that he had bought the weekly newspaper.

No details of the deal were given, and Gaidamak could not be reached Sunday. Moskovskiye Novosti had been owned by Ukrainian media magnate Vadim Rabinovich, who acquired it in July from Leonid Nevzlin, a core Menatep shareholder, who lives in Israel and is wanted in Russia on charges of fraud and tax evasion.

Last week, Rabinovich, who had not appointed a new editor for the newspaper, told Interfax that he had received an offer for the newspaper from a previous owner, theatrical producer Alexander Vainshtein, and would probably accept it. Vainshtein had sold the paper to Nevzlin in 2004.

In March 2005, Moskovskiye Novosti descended into crisis after editor Yevgeny Kiselyov, a former television anchor appointed by Nevzlin, fired several prominent veteran journalists. Kiselyov left when Nevzlin sold the paper.

At the time, media industry observers speculated that Rabinovich had paid no more than $1 million for the paper, which also publishes an English edition, Moscow News.

Gaidamak's last known major purchase was the Israeli Premier League football club Beitar Jerusalem, which he bought in August. The price was not disclosed. He also has a controlling stake in a Jerusalem basketball club.

His name has appeared in the press this year in connection with a raid in March on an Israeli bank suspected of money laundering. He has denied any wrongdoing and has not been charged.

In an interview with the Versia newspaper published in March, he said his business interests lay in the production of mineral fertilizers.

Gaidamak was once better known, however, for his alleged involvement in a scheme in 1993 to provide arms to Angola during its civil war, and for his role in negotiating a reduction in Angola's Soviet-era debt to Russia in 1996. He remains an adviser to Angola's Foreign Ministry and has Angolan citizenship. He also has Israeli, French and Canadian passports.

Gaidamak, who was born in Moscow in 1952, emigrated to France on an Israeli visa at age 19.

In the early 1990s, he did business with two of the new Russian banks -- Menatep and Rossiisky Kredit -- and with the Chyorny brothers, who had metals interests, the French newspaper Le Monde said in a 2002 investigative report into Russian business involvement in France. He was also reported to be a mediator in the sales of Soviet arms left in Eastern Europe to Latin America and Africa.

In 2000, the French put out a warrant for his arrest in connection with the Angolan arms-for-oil scandal, in which the son of former French President Francois Mitterrand was briefly jailed on charges of receiving kickbacks from Gaidamak's business partner Pierre Falcone.

Gaidamak and Falcone arranged for shipments of Russian arms that were to have been paid for with Angolan oil contracts. There was an international ban on weapon sales to Angola at the time.

An investigation into what happened to the profits, held in the French bank Paribas, led to money-laundering and tax-evasion charges against Gaidamak and others, The Guardian reported.

In a 2001 interview to The Guardian, Gaidamak said the oil-for-arms deal and his involvement in it was a legitimate transaction between the governments of Angola and Russia. "Everyone knew about the operation and everything was legal," he said.

In the Versia interview, Gaidamak said his troubles with the French authorities stemmed from upstaging French intelligence by facilitating the release of two French military pilots who had been taken prisoner in Serbia in 1995. Gaidamak said he had helped connect then-Federal Security Service chief Mikhail Barsukov and then-Foreign Intelligence Service chief Yevgeny Primakov to then-French Interior Minister Charles Pasqua in Moscow in October 1995. Russian intelligence officers then flew with him to Bosnia and helped to release the pilots.

Gaidamak also told Versia that in 1997 he had helped to release four French intelligence officers from captivity in the North Caucasus. He said they had been operating in the region under the cover of the French humanitarian organization Equilibre.

In 2000, Gaidamak left France for Israel. From June 2000 to April 2001, he headed the board of the directors at Rossiisky Kredit Bank.

Gaidamak was also a central figure in another scandal related to Angola, stemming from his role in negotiating Russia's agreement in 1996 to slash Angola's Soviet-era debt from $5.5 billion to $1.5 billion.

Le Monde and Sovershenno Sekretno, a Russian newspaper, reported in 2002 that the Russian government agreed to accept half of the money to be paid in promissory notes received by an offshore company set up by Gaidamak, Falcone and Vitaly Malkin, then president of Rossiisky Kredit. The reports alleged that Gaidamak had earned $130 million in the scheme, and that the Russian government had received only a small fraction of the $750 million due.

In interviews with Le Monde in 2002 and Versia in 2005, Gaidamak defended the arrangement, saying a commission for his role was part of the deal. He told Versia that Russia had received the full $750 million by 2001, and a Swiss investigation in 2004 determined the deal had been legal. It was not immediately possible to verify his claims.

His name surfaced again this year after the Israeli bank Hapoalim was raided in March in a crackdown on suspected money laundering.

Police sources leaked to the press the names of some of the bank's clients, which included Gaidamak, Nevzlin and Vladimir Gusinsky.

Gaidamak told the Haaretz newspaper at the time that his account at Hapoalim amounted to as little as $9,000 and was used mainly to pay his gas bills.

Several weeks later, Kommersant, citing another article in Haaretz, reported that shortly before the crackdown on Hapoalim, Gaidamak transferred $120 million from his account to another account in Luxembourg. No further information about the investigation could be immediately obtained.

In an interview with Israeli television in August, Gaidamak said he had never been questioned by police in the case, Reuters reported.

"Russian Jewish money is the most honest, the most dynamic money in the world," he is reported to have said.

Since 2002, Gaidamak has lived in Moscow. In May of this year he was elected head of the Congress of Jewish Communities and Organizations, one of the three largest national Jewish organizations. Nevzlin heads another one, the Russian Jewish Congress.


(The Moscow Times 10.x.05)

 
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