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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Gazprom to Sell Ekho Moskvy Shares

Gazprom said Wednesday it will sell back a package of shares to Ekho Moskvy radio — fulfilling part of the station's plan to retain its editorial independence.

Ekho Moskvy employees have been seeking to acquire shares from the company's founder, Vladimir Gusinsky, and from the state-connected natural gas giant, which has taken over other Media-MOST outlets in recent months over debts.

Gusinsky agreed to give his 14 percent stake to Ekho Moskvy, the station has said.

Alfred Kokh, the head of Gazprom's media arm, said Wednesday that his company would also sell back a 9.5 percent stake in Ekho Moskvy, Interfax reported. The two deals would give Ekho Moskvy employees a controlling interest in their station, which they see as crucial to ensuring editorial freedom.

However, two days before Gazprom announced its willingness to sell, authorities put on hold the transfer of shares from Gusinsky, Ekho Moskvy employees said. The future of the radio station remained uncertain.

Ekho Moskvy, the nation's premier source of fast and accurate radio news reports, is the last major outpost of the embattled Media-MOST empire. Most of the holding's other outlets have been taken over by Gazprom.

The gas company said the takeover was an attempt to protect its investment in the financially troubled media holding.

But Media-MOST and its supporters insist it was part of a Kremlin-orchestrated campaign to muzzle critical reporting about President Vladimir Putin, the war in Chechnya, and the Kremlin's alleged crackdown on human rights.

Ekho Moskvy employees now own a 28 percent stake in their station, and without Gusinsky's shares they would fall short of getting a controlling interest.

Prosecutors gave no explanation for the freezing of Gusinsky's shares.

But it could be linked to a court order to liquidate Gusinsky's Media-MOST for insolvency. Formally, the 14 percent package was still being held by Media-MOST, according to Ekho Moskvy leadership.

It may also be linked to a criminal case against Gusinsky, whom authorities accuse of fraud and money laundering.

Gusinsky has been living abroad in recent months.

If the deal between Gazprom and Ekho Moskvy goes through, companies affiliated with the gas giant would still own around 15.5 percent of the radio station. Another 25 percent of shares are held by Gazprom as collateral for old loans, 2 percent by NTV and 5 percent by the magazine Ogonyok.

Gazprom has taken over Media-MOST's NTV television, replacing its leadership and sending many of its top journalists fleeing for smaller channel TV6. Media-MOST's daily newspaper Segodnya has been closed, and the leadership of its Itogi news magazine changed.

On Monday, the Moscow City Court ruled against Media-MOST to order a transfer of a 19 percent stake in NTV, plus shares in other Media-MOST companies, to Gazprom. The ruling, which followed a flurry of legal proceedings, would give Gazprom a controlling interest in NTV, Media-MOST said, according to Interfax.