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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Surgutneftegaz Pitches Bid for Ren-TV Stake

Kremlin-friendly oil company Surgutneftegaz is bidding for a 35 percent stake in Ren-TV, one of the country's last independent television stations, a company spokeswoman told Interfax on Friday.

Raisa Khodchenko, a spokeswoman for Russia's fourth-largest oil company, told Interfax that Surgut had put in a bid to buy the stake.

"We're interested in investing in the media business," she said.

Surgut officials could not be reached for immediate comment.

Ren-TV, which reaches 97 million Russians, is the last large station openly critical of President Vladimir Putin, and media analysts predicted that the change of ownership would make it more compliant ahead of the 2008 presidential elections.

Two radio stations and a few newspapers remain independent, but analysts say their days may be numbered as the state expands its hold over the media prior to the December 2007 parliamentary and 2008 presidential elections.

In July, electricity monopoly Unified Energy Systems sold a 70 percent stake in Ren-TV to Severstal Group, owner of Russia's second-largest steelmaker, for $100 million. German media giant Bertelsmann unit RTL bought the remaining 30 percent from the channel's founders.

All other major Russian networks are owned or indirectly controlled by the state and air favorable reports about Kremlin policies.

The influential NTV television network, once fiercely critical of the Kremlin and a bastion of the non-state-controlled media, was eventually wrested by the state from its owner, media tycoon Vladimir Gusinsky.

State-controlled natural gas giant Gazprom recently acquired a controlling stake in Izvestia, one of the few remaining independent newspapers. Its media arm already owns Moscow radio station Ekho Moskvy and NTV.

Steel baron Alexei Mordashov, Severstal's founder with a personal fortune estimated at $5.1 billion by Forbes magazine, is regarded as a businessman loyal to the government, and the secretive Surgut, run by reclusive businessman Vladimir Bogdanov for almost two decades, is seen as close to the Kremlin.

Surgut has been accused by investors for years of artificially lowering profits by deducting capital expenditure and provisions and sued by minority investors seeking millions of dollars of unpaid dividends. Surgut defends its dividend policy as legal.

Surgut appears not to be the only bidder for Ren-TV.

Earlier this month, media reported that Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. was also in negotiations to buy part of Ren-TV from Severstal and that Ren-TV's founders were also in talks to buy back a 19 percent stake from Severstal for $25 million.