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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Putin Distances Self From Media Dispute

At a meeting with former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, President Vladimir Putin reiterated Tuesday that his government would not meddle in a dispute between gas giant Gazprom and media holding Media-MOST.

Putin said he considered it "improper to interfere in the conflict of two business entities," which should be settled in court, presidential spokesman Alexei Gromov quoted him as saying, according to Interfax.

Putin’s critics have accused the president and his circle of curbing press freedom. They point to the case of Vladimir Gusinsky, the Media-Most owner who was jailed for four days in June on fraud charges, and say that the case was a Kremlin attempt to force Gusinsky to muzzle his critical media.

Putin has denied any campaign to restrict the media, and he reiterated that position at the meeting with Gorbachev, who heads the advisory council of Media-MOST’s flagship NTV television.

"He firmly adheres to the idea and practice of the freedom of speech, and said that society cannot live normally without it," Gorbachev told NTV after the meeting.

Gorbachev said that Putin told him that he hasn’t been and will not be involved in the dispute between Media-MOST and Gazprom.

"Let them solve their financial disputes in accordance with the law," he quoted Putin as saying.

Gusinsky signed an agreement in July to sell his company to state-controlled Gazprom. Press Minister Mikhail Lesin initialed the deal.

But Gusinsky declared the agreement void last week, saying he had signed the deal under duress in exchange for his freedom.

Gazprom sued Media-MOST last week and won a ruling to freeze shares in the holding’s companies. Media-MOST owes the gas giant $473 million. Court bailiffs, who are seizing those shares this week, had taken stakes in nine companies by Monday.

Gusinsky alleges that Lesin’s endorsement of the deal was further evidence of the government’s involvement. Lesin insisted he signed the agreement as a favor to Gusinsky, and acknowledged that doing so was a mistake.

Gorbachev, speaking after the meeting with Putin, said the president told him that he was bewildered by Lesin’s action and considered it "impermissible." Putin said he had ordered Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov to look into the case and make his judgment.

Kasyanov told reporters Tuesday that he hadn’t made a decision yet on Lesin’s fate. "It’s impermissible for Cabinet ministers to take part in business disputes," he said.

Media-MOST lawyer Pavel Astakhov said that his company and Gazprom were still negotiating the debt settlement, and that a court hearing had been set for Oct. 18, Interfax reported.

According to Gorbachev, Putin said he favored NTV television remaining in private hands. "NTV’s policy should be determined by its shareholders," he quoted Putin as saying. Ekho Moskvy Anonymous web site hosting the letter said to be from Gazprom Media.