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Daily Is Sold, but Now What?

Kommersant's editor said Sunday that the sale of his newspaper to metals magnate Alisher Usmanov had been completed but the new owner had yet to send any representatives to the newspaper's offices.

The sale nevertheless threatens to alter irrevocably the country's media landscape by putting the country's last independent-minded national daily into the hands of a billionaire who is thought to be close to First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev and has a reputation of being a tough-talking negotiator.

It also highlights a broader Kremlin-backed strategy of national media buyouts by loyal businessmen and the state-owned Gazprom behemoth. After the takeovers, the coverage of the once independent-minded news organizations has become comparatively bland and toothless.

"We thought that after they took over all national television channels, the authorities would leave newspapers -- which have a far more limited reach than television -- in peace. We were mistaken," said Oleg Panfilov, head of the Center for Journalism in Extreme Situations.

National newspapers that criticized the authorities -- including Izvestia, Nezavisimaya Gazeta, Gazeta and Moskovskiye Novosti -- have been snapped up by Gazprom or businessmen loyal to the Kremlin in recent years and adopted a more pro-Kremlin line on their editorial policy.

"I am afraid the same fate awaits Kommersant," Panfilov said.

Some Kommersant journalists have expressed the same concern, but the newspaper's editor, Vyacheslav Borodulin, suggested it was too early to tell.

Borodulin said Sunday that the acquisition of the Kommersant publishing house, which includes the daily business newspaper, had been completed, but several formalities might remain.

He also said that Usmanov's representatives had not visited the editorial offices so far, contradicting a Kommersant reporter who said Thursday that Usmanov's business team was visiting the offices.

Borodulin said no journalists had resigned or were expected to resign over the sale. As for the imminent departure of deputy editor Alexander Shadrin, Borodulin said that Shadrin first announced his intention to leave three months ago and that the decision was unrelated to Kommersant's ownership.

While Borodulin's remarks appeared to be an attempt to soothe fears about what might happen next at his newspaper, former Kommersant owner Boris Berezovsky seems to have changed his mind about the prudence of the sale to Usmanov.

"Regretfully, I am sure that the Kremlin has more influence on Alisher Usmanov than it could have on me, and this, naturally, could and no doubt will affect Kommersant's independence," he told Ekho Moskvy radio on Thursday from London, where he lives in asylum.

As news of the pending sale emerged last Wednesday night, Berezovsky praised Usmanov as a level-headed businessman who "doesn't let political passions get the better of him."

"Of all the people active in Russian business today, Usmanov is probably one of the best," Berezovsky said by telephone.

Berezovsky bought Kommersant in 1999 and passed it over to his business partner Badri Patarkatsishvili earlier this year to shield it, he said, from Kremlin pressure.

Stanislav Belkovsky, a political analyst and one-time Kremlin insider, predicted that the only change to Kommersant's editorial policy would be the promotion in its pages of Medvedev as the next president. He said Usmanov was close to Medvedev, and that the main aim of the purchase was probably to prepare Medvedev's candidacy for the 2008 presidential election. Medvedev and Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov are seen as the leading candidates to win President Vladimir Putin's blessing as his preferred successor.

Medvedev is the chairman of Gazprom.

Usmanov is the head of Gazprominvestholding, a Gazprom subsidiary that handles some of the parent company's assets.

Usmanov, who has no known media experience, insisted last week that he was buying Kommersant for about $200 million as a private investor and for purely commercial reasons. He also said that the Kremlin had not pressured him to buy, and he would not interfere with editorial policy.

Gazprom has acquired and eventually tamed several independent-minded news organizations that criticized the Kremlin. The biggest takeover was of NTV television and other media outlets from Vladimir Gusinsky in 2001. Gazprom also owns Izvestia and Komsomolskaya Pravda.

Raf Shakirov, Kommersant's editor from 1997 to 1999, said the newspaper's sale and other recent press buyouts might look like purely commercial deals but were, in fact, steps in a Kremlin-backed strategy to suppress the independent press. "These deals are not random. They are part of a systematic process," he said.

"Now, only foreign-owned publications like Vedomosti retain editorial independence, although I think that the authorities will try to look for ways to affect them," he said.

Vedomosti is co-owned by Independent Media Sanoma Magazines -- a Finnish group that is the parent company of The Moscow Times -- The Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times.

Alexei Simonov, the head of the Glasnost Defense Foundation, a media freedom watchdog, said he did not expect any overnight changes at Kommersant. "Kommersant will lose its ironic and independent outlook and become a balanced publication in the eyes of its new owner," Simonov said. "Its transformation, however, will take place gradually and not be noticeable to the daily reader."

Shakirov said changes would only start emerging in about six months.

Panfilov dismissed Usmanov's promise not to change Kommersant's editorial policy. "We heard exactly the same assurances when new management was installed at NTV in 2001 and at Izvestia last year, only to see drastic changes in those media outlets within weeks," he said.

Usmanov -- an iron ore tycoon who is ranked No. 25 on Forbes' list of richest Russians, with a fortune of $3.1 billion -- has a reputation of being a tough businessman and negotiator. But it is unclear how his style will apply to his relations with the newspaper, metals analysts said.

"What is clear is he has not shown anything so far that distinguishes him as a person who will rally for civil freedoms such as the freedom of speech," said Sergei Donskoi, a metals analyst with Troika Dialog.

(The Moscow Times 04.ix.06)

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