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Gazprom gives Boris Jordan the boot

Boris Jordan -- a U.S.-born investment banker who took charge of NTV television during a highly politicized takeover by government-controlled Gazprom and oversaw the channel's comeback -- was suddenly fired Friday as general director of NTV's parent company, Gazprom-Media.

Although technically Jordan remains general director of NTV, he is certain to lose this position, too. Alexander Dybal, the low-profile chairman of Gazprom-Media's board, who was voted in Friday to replace Jordan as the holding's general director, said a change in NTV management can be expected.

"We have different viewpoints on corporate governance and strategy of business development," Dybal was quoted by Interfax as saying.

But Jordan's spokesman, Oleg Sapozhnikov, suggested there was a political motive behind the decision. "We think the true reasons for the dismissal are outside the realm of business, because previously the shareholders had more than once expressed satisfaction with the management's work and the development strategy it had chosen," he said.

Last September, Gazprom struck a deal with government-connected bank Evrofinans to restructure Gazprom-Media into a new holding, in which 51 percent would belong to Gazprom and 49 percent to Yevrofinans, which assumed Gazprom-Media's debts of $600 million and put up $100 million in cash. In a statement announcing the deal, shareholders said that in recognition of Jordan's and his team's efforts in reviving the company after it nearly collapsed in the battle between Gazprom and NTV founder Vladimir Gusinsky, NTV management would get 10 percent of the television company, while Jordan would get the option to buy 5 percent of the new holding, in non-voting shares, plus a three-year contract to run it.

Jordan's firing appeared to be the result of several factors, some political, others business-related and personal. But whether it had to do with President Vladimir Putin's fury over the way NTV covered the October hostage crisis in Moscow, Jordan's refusal to sell NTV's ads through the advertising market's near monopolist Video International -- a company founded by the current press minister -- or whether it was his unwillingness, or inability, to rein in the channel's editorial policy or his strained relationship with his immediate boss, Dybal, and rival media executives, it boils down to a perhaps unpleasant conclusion. And that is that Jordan's proclaimed Western-style, business-only approach to running the country's leading privately managed media holding was rejected by the highly politicized, financially opaque and personally interconnected media environment.

"It's a tangle of subjective and objective causes complicated all the more by the current political situation," said Anna Kachkayeva, a media analyst with Radio Liberty. "He regarded with a certain contempt our Byzantine system of interaction, including in the business field, and did not play by the rules. He did not manage to build up a relationship with his rivals -- Channel One's Konstantin Ernst and VGTRK's Oleg Dobrodeyev. He lost the support of one of the political clans and did not get the support of another. He has remained a foreign body in the system, and it would have rejected him sooner or later.

"The hostage drama expedited this process," she said. "When Putin came crashing down [on NTV], that sent the signal that Jordan should be avoided like the plague."

At a meeting with media managers in November, at which NTV managers were conspicuously absent, Putin strongly criticized the station's coverage of the hostage crisis. Without explicitly naming NTV, he accused it of putting its ratings above the lives of the hostages and took a jab at Jordan, who holds a U.S. passport.

"Thank God someone can make money, but not at any cost, not on the blood of your own citizens, if, of course, those who do this consider these citizens to be their own," Putin said.

In the runup to Jordan's ouster, several newspapers published stories citing unnamed Gazprom sources accusing him of padding his triumphal reports of NTV achieving profitability last year for the first time in its history. As late as Thursday, there were reports that NTV had damaged Gazprom's business interests in Kazakhstan by airing a documentary in December in which opposition figures accused Kazakh government officials of corruption in regard to oil and gas transit.

"Taking into account the damage to Gazprom's economic interests, the company's leadership may resort to quite tough actions in regard to [NTV's] top management," the government newspaper Rossiiskaya Gazeta said Thursday. Vremya Novostei, which is believed to be tied to Kremlin chief of staff Alexander Voloshin, ran an advertorial on the same day of the same substance.

These reports ran the same day Jordan had a decisive meeting with Gazprom CEO Alexei Miller. Miller was supposed to have met with Putin the day before, but there was no confirmation the meeting took place.

Jordan could not be reached this weekend. In an interview with The Washington Post published Saturday, he said tensions with the Kremlin rose after the hostage crisis, and Press Minister Mikhail Lesin told him he needed to discuss the differences with Gazprom.

Jordan said he did not expect Gazprom's reaction. "I felt like there would be pressure, and we would deal with it and go on," he said. "This came as a bit of a surprise."

Jordan scheduled a news conference for Monday.

The government has distanced itself from Gazprom's decision to fire Jordan. The Press Ministry declined to comment.

"Is Gazprom-Media a news organization? No," Lesin told reporters Friday. "Then why are you asking me about it? Call the Registration Chamber."

A government source, however, said Jordan had alienated most of the establishment, in part by his arrogance and failure to play the game. "In the end, there was nobody there to defend him," the source said. He also said that Jordan had underestimated Dybal, his boss. Kommersant reported Saturday that Jordan had refused to give Dybal a pass to NTV premises.

Media sources said that even before the hostage crisis, Jordan lost his access to the Kremlin.

It remained unclear how soon Jordan will lose his NTV post or how much noise he is going to make.

Inside sources said Jordan was negotiating the compensation he is due under the early termination clause of his contract as general director of Gazprom-Media, a position he has held since October 2001. Dybal said Jordan would be compensated, describing the sum only as "fair and significant." The word in media circles put the bargaining in a range from $10 million to $75 million.

Among possible successors to Jordan at NTV, the newspapers have named Dybal, the anchor of NTV's "Namedni" show Leonid Parfyonov, Vladimir Kulistikov, a former Jordan deputy who moved to state-run VGTRK, and Channel One's first deputy head Alexander Lyubimov. The government source, who ruled out Kulistikov and Lyubimov, said another candidate is possible.

(The Moscow Times 20.i.03)

 
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