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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Paper Up in Arms Over Impending Share Sale

The chief editor of the popular liberal daily Komsomolskaya Pravda said Tuesday he worries that a plan to sell 20 percent of the newspaper's shares to Uneximbank might threaten the paper's independence.

The board of directors of the paper, in which employees hold a majority stake, decided last week to sell 20 percent of the newspaper's stock to the bank.

Shareholders originally approved sale of the 20 percent stake to the state-controlled natural gas giant Gazprom, but that deal was never completed.

Valeri Simonov, chief editor of Komsomolskaya Pravda, said on Echo Moscow radio Tuesday that the sale to Uneximbank was negotiated without the knowledge of the editorial board and the staff.

He said the editorial board plans to take the case to court.

Simonov also suggested that Uneximbank already was quietly buying up shares in the paper by offering "large sums of money" to journalists for their shares.

He said he fears that if the bank's stake becomes too large, it could result in "radical" changes to the newspaper's editorial policy.

In a an interview in the daily Nezavisimaya Gazeta, Simonov said a "political game" was behind the equity deal.

He contended that presidential administration officials "have long looked for some levers to influence our newspaper" -- a reference to Uneximbank's purported close ties to the administration of President Boris Yeltsin.

Deputy Chief Editor Vladimir Mamontov, who favors the sale to Uneximbank, said long negotiations with Gazprom had not been successful and the newspaper started to look for another investor. He said the newspaper received guarantees from Uneximbank that it will not interfere with the newspaper's political stance.

"It makes no difference for us who will be investing, as long as it is not fascists or madmen," said Mamontov.

Vladimir Bogdanov, chairman of the Union of Journalists of Russia, said Tuesday that Gazprom is "inert," thus making a "very good" media investor because it is known for not interfering into editorial policies. He contended that Uneximbank is "very aggressive" and "likes to rule the media."

According to Mamontov, Gazprom has been financing the business section of Komsomolskaya Pravda, while Uneximbank said it gave loans to the paper. He also said Gazprom is upset by the proposed deal with the bank, but that the paper's board of directors sent a letter to the gas company expressing a will to continue business relations.

Interfax quoted an Uneximbank spokesman Tuesday as saying the bank plans to invest about $20 million over two years in Komsomolskaya Pravda, "in order to raise it to a high technical level."

Uneximbank is the fourth largest Russian bank. Its founding president, Vladimir Potanin, was appointed last summer as the government's first deputy prime minister in charge of economic reform, a position he lost this week in a Cabinet shuffle.

The speaker of the State Duma, Gennady Seleznyov, a former chief editor of Komsomolskaya Pravda, said Tuesday he was "shocked" by the situation in the newspaper and called it a "tragedy."

"We will soon have no free press left," he said, referring to the increase in media acquisitions by big business.

It is unclear whether the conflict will result in the split of the newspaper staff. A showdown is expected Friday, when a general shareholders' meeting is scheduled.