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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Berezovsky Says State to Control ORT

Exiled Russian businessman Boris Berezovsky said in an interview on Thursday that the state planned to take control of top television station ORT, as a dispute rumbled over rival NTV's bid to stay independent.

The status of Russia's media has come under close scrutiny under President Vladimir Putin, with some critics accusing him of trying to stifle free speech.

NTV, Russia's biggest independent TV network and considered the most influential Russian media outlet not controlled by the Kremlin, says it has battled government influence. NTV has launched talks to sell shares to the U.S. media mogul Ted Turner, who founded CNN.

ORT, Russia's most watched television station, has always been partly state-owned but Berezovsky was seen as the true force behind it.

But Berezovsky, once a Kremlin insider who has sided with those who accuse Putin of threatening press freedom, told the daily Kommersant he was to sell his 49 percent stake in ORT and that this would effectively transfer the company to the state.

"The deal to sell ORT shares is being completed. Roman Abramovich is acting as go-between," Berezovsky told the daily, referring to a leading oil magnate and close business colleague.

"I don't know who the new formal owner is, but I have no doubt that these shares will pass under state control," he told the daily, one of several media outlets he still controls.

Berezovsky, wanted for questioning in a fraud case, quit parliament last summer and fled abroad, saying he felt threatened by the president.

Berezovsky refused to reveal details of the ORT talks but Kommersant suggested Berezovsky's stake would sell for about $80 million or might involve a swap for shares in an oil-related enterprise, such as a large oil refinery.

Sergei Dorenko, an ORT journalist and executive, told the daily Sevodnya he had opposed bids to pass ORT to the state. But the shares were "being handed to Putin like a gift".

"My understanding is that the Kremlin was given the task of taking over ORT no matter what...," he told the daily.



NTV SEEKS INVESTOR, TURNER IN SPOTLIGHT

The ORT debate has been overshadowed by the debacle at NTV, often bolder in reporting and criticism of the Kremlin and government than ORT and the fully state-owned channel RTR.

NTV and Media-Most say they have come under consistent pressure. NTV founder Vladimir Gusinsky is currently under house arrest in Spain, pending an extradition request by Russia to pursue the fraud charges.

Prosecutors also questioned Media-Most official Andrei Tsimailo for a second day on Thursday after raiding Media-Most's offices on Wednesday seeking financial documents.

But a Media-Most spokeswoman said on Wednesday the raids had prevented Tsimailo from flying to London to discuss the sale of a large share in the television channel. Media sources say Turner is favourite to bid for a one-fourth stake.

The spokeswoman said Gazprom-Media, part of Russia's vast state-controlled Gazprom gas concern and NTV's largest shareholder, wanted greater control over the choice of investor.

The deal to sell NTV was worked out as part of Media-Most's repayment of debts of more than $260 million to Gazprom. Gusinsky wants a foreign investor to take a blocking stake to protect NTV from Kremlin domination.