Russia's leading quality independent newspaper Vedomosti is set to be sold to businessmen close to Russian President Vladimir Putin, according to newswires, in a move that will further narrow the space for critical opinion in Russia's media.
According to Bloomberg, businessmen close to the president are preparing to buy the respected paper that was founded in 1999, only months before Putin shot to power on the back of a war against militants in Chechnya. At its launch, the paper advertised with the slogan, "Any oligarch can buy us. At kiosks," referring to the purchase months before of rival Kommersant by the late oligarch Boris Berezovsky.
The paper was co-founded by the Wall Street Journal and Financial Times, each of which hold 33% stakes in the paper. Finnish media outfit Sanoma owns the remainder. While Vedomosti has a print run of only 75,000, its high standard of reporting has lent it wide influence.
Despite its foreign ownership and frequent criticism of the government, the paper seemed to have been accepted as an institution and an integral part of Russian public life, read in the Kremlin while also enjoying access to the top figures in Russia politics and business, with Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev having being interviewed as recently as September.
The paper has also run hard-hitting and respected investigations into alleged corruption in the Kremlin. In particular the paper has explored the links between Putin and energy and finance businessmen such as Gennady Timchenko, Arkady Rotenberg and Yury Kovalchuk – Putin friends of many years standing, who have enjoyed meteoric rises to wealth during his time in power.
It is these investigations that may have prompted the paper's sale, reckon experts, since they largely served as a basis for the West to impose individual sanctions on these businessmen as a means of punishing Putin over Russia’s aggression in Ukraine.
As part of a wave of anti-Western hostility in response to sanctions, Russia's Duma passed a law restricting foreign ownership of any media resource to a total of 20%, prompting Vedomosti's owners to seek a Russian buyer. Putin signed the bill into law on October 15.
According to Bloomberg sources, it is likely that precisely the businessmen close to Putin who were subjects of numerous Vedomosti investigations have now acquired the paper, in the form of either Gazprom Media or banker Yury Kovalchuk.
However, Bloomberg reports that in order to make the deal acceptable to current owners, there may be an intermediary buyer in the form of Peter Gerwe, a Moscow-based American with Russian backing. Gerwe confirmed in an email that he is interested in the assets, but denied he would act as an intermediary.
Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, told Bloomberg that “a market process” will determine Vedomosti’s fate. “We don’t know what will happen to Vedomosti, who will buy it,” he added.
Putin’s deputy chief of staff, Vyacheslav Volodin, accused Vedomosti of serving foreign interests at a meeting with Russian newspaper editors in September, according to Tatiana Lysova, the paper’s chief editor.
Another respected Western-owned investigative publication, the Russian edition of Forbes, is threatened by the restrictive law on media.
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