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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Izvestia Claims Control With Alliance

The battle for control of the influential Izvestia daily took a new twist Tuesday when the newspaper's editors and the Uneximbank group announced that their newly forged alliance controls more than 50 percent of the company's shares, displacing corporate master LUKOIL.

The oil company, which only last week announced that it controlled a majority stake, disputed the Izvestia-Uneximbank contention, leaving the official status of the paper's ownership unclear.

Izvestia editors, who turned to the powerful banking group as a "white knight" after relations with LUKOIL soured, said they had succeeded in repelling pressure from the oil major, although they conceded that relations between the editorial staff and the bank have yet to be fully worked out.

"The controlling share is not in LUKOIL's hands but on the side of the editorial team," said a front-page editorial in Izvestia's Wednesday edition, stressing that Uneximbank had guaranteed journalists their independence.

Izvestia editor Igor Golembiovsky was quoted on NTV's 10 p.m. news as saying the paper controlled 0.02 percent more stock than LUKOIL. But the oil company said earlier it still retained a majority stake, and that talks among the three parties are still going on.

"There are consultations under way with all the new shareholders in order to create normal working conditions for Izvestia," said LUKOIL spokesman Alexander Vasilenko.

Izvestia editors and the LUKOIL leadership have been locked in a highly public war since early April, when the paper reprinted a short story from the French daily Le Monde alleging that Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin had amassed a personal wealth of $5 billion during his term of office.

LUKOIL, which has close ties to the prime minister, then said the publication had damaged the company's business reputation and threatened to sack Golembiovsky. It also continued to boost the stake in Izvestia that it had been amassing throughout the spring.

Looking for a powerful financial ally to fight off LUKOIL, Izvestia turned to Uneximbank, which agreed in late April to provide a loan of an unspecified amount backed by 22 percent of the paper's stock, Izvestia political commentator Otto Latsis said Tuesday.

Uneximbank extended money to Izvestia "based on full trust, under our word of honor," Izvestia deputy editor Sergei Dardykin said Tuesday.

But Yassen Zassoursky, dean of the journalism faculty at Moscow State University, said Izvestia's partnership with one of Russia's biggest and most politically well-connected banks could have its own repercussions.

"What if they print something bad about nickel?" Zassoursky said, referring to Uneximbank's control of the valuable metals giant Norilsk Nickel.

Mikhail Kozhokin, deputy chairman of Uneximbank, said the bank considers the newspaper an important investment and does not intend to interfere in the editorial policy.

Izvestia's Wednesday editorial states that the newspaper will continue to hold a stake enabling it to block any unwanted changes. Journalists will retain the right to nominate the chief editor.