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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Khodorkovsky Buys Newspaper

With its benefactor's business empire under siege and the election season officially under way, Open Russia on Thursday said it had snapped up one of the nation's most prestigious newspaper titles and hired a leading Kremlin critic to resurrect the publication.

The charity, set up by Yukos chief Mikhail Khodorkovsky ostensibly to promote relations with the West, said it had acquired the rights to publish Moskovskiye Novosti and hired investigative television journalist Yevgeny Kiselyov as editor-in-chief.

The weekly, a champion of perestroika-era reforms in the 1980s and democracy in the 1990s, has lost much of its former glory and has been struggling financially for years. It claims to have a circulation of 119,500, but media watchers say the figure is much lower.

The paper's previous owner, theatrical producer Alexander Vainshtein, "was virtually paying for it out of his own pocket," said Kirill Legat, a television producer and the new general director of the publication's eponymous publishing house.

Open Russia spokesman Maxim Dbar said the fund wants to expand the scope of the publication, which is also published in English, to make it "understandable not only to the old intelligentsia but to a much wider audience."

"We are not seeking to change the ideology 180 degrees. I would not call today's newspaper a clear opposition newspaper," he said. "Although some changes in content are anticipated, they will not be radical in nature, and editorial policy will stay in the same vein."

Media and political analysts, though divided on what Kiselyov can bring to the paper, agreed that his involvement is sure to draw attention to the project.

One of the nation's most recognizable personalities, Kiselyov was essentially driven out of television as the channels he worked for -- NTV, TV6 and TVS -- were systematically taken over with the consent of the Kremlin, which he frequently criticized, especially for the quagmire in Chechnya.

Kiselyov, who is currently on vacation, will replace Viktor Loshak, who has run the paper for the last decade. Loshak declined requests for comment, but called the situation "self-explanatory" in an interview with Ekho Moskvy radio.

News of Loshak's resignation came as a shock to his colleagues. "We learned about it on the radio this morning," said one reporter at the paper, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Kiselyov, who has recently turned down a number of job offers from leading news outlets, including Gazprom-owned NTV, seems an unlikely choice to head Moskovskiye Novosti, said Anna Kachkayeva, television analyst with Washington-funded Radio Liberty.

While Loshak is universally regarded as a seasoned newspaper journalist, Kiselyov's journalistic experience is limited to television, although he has been writing a political column for the Gazeta newspaper and recently announced that he wanted to get into making documentaries.

But Irina Yasina, project manager of Open Russia, saw no contradiction in that, telling Ekho Moskvy, "There is such a profession as journalism, and it makes no difference whether someone works on TV or for a newspaper."

Some media experts were less generous.

"Kiselyov's appointment makes no sense at all," said Alexei Pankin, editor of the media magazine Sreda. "The only explanation I can come up with is that they felt sorry for him and decided to give him a job. ... Kiselyov is probably the worst candidate they could find -- he has already ruined three companies, and I see no reason to believe it will be different this time around."

With or without Kiselyov, however, liberal political observers were delighted with the development.

"This is very good news," said Andrei Piontkovsky, an independent political analyst.

"This is Yukos' way of saying that it won't surrender easily to the advancing chekists," he said, referring to the legal assault launched against Khodorkovsky's business empire two months ago by hawks in the Kremlin.

Khodorkovsky's right-hand man and the co-founder of Yukos' parent company, Menatep Group, Platon Lebedev, has been locked up in the Federal Security Service's Lefortovo prison since his arrest July 2 on charges of stealing state property during the privatization of Russia's largest fertilizer producer in the mid-1990s.

The charges are widely believed to be payback partly for Khodorkovsky's criticism of the Kremlin and his funding of opposition parties. Nevertheless, Khodorkovsky said last week that he intended to continue financing parties such as Yabloko ahead of parliamentary elections in December.

"This is the last chance for the shrinking free press, for everyone who chose the European model of development," Piontkovsky said. "Yukos and Khodorkovsky are doing all they can to stop the ongoing attack on the last vestiges of freedom and democracy in this country."

Lilia Shevtsova, senior associate at the Carnegie Moscow Center, called the move symbolic.

"The positions of liberals in Russia are growing stronger, especially with the new professional management team and money allocated to reviving Moskovskiye Novosti," she said. "Khodorkovsky is making a bold move at a difficult moment both for him and his company. He chose to support this newspaper because democratic ideals mean a lot to him."

"Kiselyov, with his image of a journalist unjustly prosecuted by the regime, can prove to be an invaluable asset for Yukos," Pankin said. From now on, any attack on Yukos by the authorities can be labeled an attack on press freedom, he said.

As early as April, in an interview with The Moscow Times during the Russian Economic Forum in London, Kiselyov said wealthy private businessmen were looking for ways to support opposition figures and opposition parties "to create a system of balances."

He also said, however, that newspapers were not the ideal propaganda tool.

"Probably the most important thing is control of the electronic media, of major TV stations, as they are very powerful weapons in Russia," he said.

Indeed, as previous oligarchs who have run afoul of the Kremlin have discovered, control of television matters above all.

Boris Berezovsky, for example, who is living in self-imposed exile in London, was forced to give up control of ORT, now Channel One, but still retains control of the influential dailies Kommersant and Nezavisimaya Gazeta.

Likewise, NTV founder Vladimir Gusinsky, who was recently detained in Greece at Russia's request, lost control of his television network to state-controlled Gazprom. He also lost his publishing house and Ekho Moskvy, but still controls Yezhenedelny Zhurnal and Ekho-TV.

Metals magnate Vladimir Potanin's Prof-Media holds a stake in the Izvestia and Komsomolskaya Pravda dailies, as well as in Independent Media, the parent company of The Moscow Times and Vedomosti.

Staff Writer Catherine Belton contributed to this report.