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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

NTV and Gazprom Strike an Accord

Media-MOST announced Wednesday that it has reached an "amicable agreement" on part of its debt to state-controlled gas giant Gazprom. Company officials said the deal would ensure its journalists? independence, and would also involve bringing in an unspecified major foreign investor.

The companies ? which have been engaged in a politically charged battle for control over Media-MOST?s holdings, most notably NTV television ? agreed not to divulge details of the agreement before it is signed, a Media-MOST spokeswoman said in a telephone interview.

The announcement was issued at a Moscow court that was to consider a suit brought by a Gazprom subsidiary against Media-MOST, the country?s largest privately owned media group.

The plaintiff, Gazprom-Media, alleged that the media group had been transferring assets offshore to avoid having them confiscated in lieu of its $473 million in debts. Both parties petitioned the court to postpone the hearing in light of their agreement.

Click here to read our special report on the Struggle for Media-MOST.The deal between Media-MOST and Gazprom-Media covers $211.6 million ? the principal of a $248.5 million debt. Media-MOST owes Gazprom $263 million more, which will come due next year. All of the funds were guarantees on third-party loans to Media-MOST.

Media-MOST officials stressed that the deal would not compromise the independence of its journalists, who have long complained of pressure from the Kremlin to change their editorial policy.

Yevgeny Kiselyov, general director of Media-MOST?s flagship NTV television, said in televised remarks that the agreement would "guarantee the true independence of the [company?s] media."

Kiselyov added that "this debt [to Gazprom] was created on an absolutely political basis, in order to create problems for us and to try to get NTV into the government?s hands."

Last month, Gazprom-Media and Media-MOST revealed that Vladimir Gusinsky, the head of Media-MOST, had agreed to transfer control of his media empire to Gazprom days before prosecutors cleared him of embezzlement charges with no clear explanation.

Gusinsky, who was jailed for three days in July, said he had been forced by the Kremlin to swap his holding?s assets for his freedom from jail. He called the agreement invalid on grounds that it had been signed under duress.

In that agreement, Gazprom was to receive control of Media-MOST in exchange for cancellation of the company?s debts and an additional $300 million in cash.

The agreement included a legally questionable document called Appendix 6 ? signed not only by Gusinsky and Gazprom-Media head Alfred Kokh, but also by Press Minister Mikhail Lesin ? that seemed to support Gusinsky?s claim that he was offered a choice between selling or going to jail: The appendix stipulated that the signees, as part of the sale, would do everything "within their competence" to ensure Gusinsky?s freedom and an end to legal action against him.

Lesin later said that he had signed the document "as an individual" rather than a government official, and that he had done so at Gusinsky?s request, in the hopes of defusing the conflict between the two companies.

Although Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov scolded Lesin for his involvement in the deal, the Kremlin has never addressed Gusinsky?s allegations.

Sources at Media-MOST have said that ? as a guarantee of editorial independence ? the company wanted assurances from Gazprom that any shares it obtained in a settlement would be resold to Western investors, Reuters reported.

After Wednesday?s announcement, Media-MOST said in a statement that the agreement would allow a "large foreign investor with international renown" to become one of its shareholders.

"We are prepared to give up the controlling stake in NTV, as long as none of the other shareholders owns this controlling stake either, precisely so that this ensures the journalists? independence and employment security," Kiselyov was quoted by Interfax as saying.

Gazprom officials have said they too are interested in selling off their stake in Media-MOST to a foreign investor. Gazprom owns a 14 percent stake in Media-MOST and says it holds another 40 percent stake as collateral for the $473 million in loan guarantees.

Earlier this month Gazprom said it had held negotiations with a major European media group, and local media reports suggested that it might have been Rupert Murdoch?s News Corp.

But a spokeswoman in News Corp.?s London office said Wednesday night that the company has not struck any deal involving Media-MOST.

"It?s not us," said Alison Clark. "We haven?t signed a deal with anyone."

Meanwhile, another victory came for Media-MOST on Monday, when a Moscow court ruled in the company?s favor in its slander suit against Alexander Zdanovich, a spokesman for the Federal Security Service, or FSB.

In May, after masked federal agents had raided Media-MOST?s offices, Zdanovich suggested in televised remarks that Media-MOST had created its own "special service" that engages in illegal surveillance, including spying on the company?s own employees. The company denied that allegation, and the court agreed Zdanovich did not back it up.

A day later, however, Media-MOST was hit by another in a series of high-profile defections, when NTV?s long-time news director Vladimir Kulistikov resigned and was appointed chairman of the state-run RIA news agency on Tuesday.

The resignations began in February, when Oleg Dobrodeyev, a co-founder of NTV credited with creating the station?s top-ranking news service, left Media-MOST to head up the vast, state-owned conglomerate of television and radio companies, VGTRK.

Interfax reported that the validation of Media-MOST?s settlement with Gazprom was tentatively set to take place at a Moscow arbitration court Nov. 8.