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Press Review March 3, 2003
Oligarchs DP Moscow Times
By Mark Ames Browse author Email

As this issue goes to bed, The Moscow Times announced that a 35% stake in its parent company Independent Media had been passed from one oligarch to the next in a kinky share-swap. Or so it seems, following Tuesday's lead, "Interros Buys Into TMT's Parent," and the even sleazier accompanying editorial, "Oligarchs Come And Go."

The article and editorial work hard, employing tireless repetition and murky logic, to confuse readers into accepting that Independent Media's sellout to oligarch Vladimir Potanin will have no affect on their editorial policy. But there's an underlying panic that can't be masked.

In the second paragraph of the lead article, reporter Andrei Zolotov writes, "[T]he alliance does not pose a direct threat to the editorial integrity of [...] The Moscow Times, which is fully owned by Independent Media, analysts said." Here he used the oldest hack trick in the book, attributing a specious claim (imposed from above) that Potanin won't threaten the Times' editorial to harmless "analysts." Which analysts is he talking about? All analysts, as he implies? Or just the two he coaxed into supporting him? Could he not find one analyst who disagreed with that?

Let's put this into perspective. Vladimir Potanin's name is linked to the destruction of the independence of Izvestia which he purchased in 1997. The crackdown on Izvestia was sparked by investigative articles critical of the oligarchs. Potanin's purchase and subsequent gutting of the staff was considered by most top Russian journalists to be the coup de grace against Russia's brief experiment with a free and independent press.

In the accompanying editorial "Oligarchs Come And Go" the reader is treated to a far cruder dose of the same bullshit. The Times is reduced to argument on the level of the cop on South Park: "There's nothing to see here people, keep moving along." Aware that it is in danger of convincing no one, the editorial rolls out a list of false examples to prove that TMT remained critical of previous oligarch-partner Mikhail Khodorkovsky. But the two critical articles on Khodorkovsky chosen as examples are dated August 25 and December 28, 1998 -- that is, after the financial crisis, when Khodorkovsky's empire, including his 10 percent stake in Independent Media, were in doubt. Proving...that they sure know how to kick an oligarch when he's down, boy!

You won't find that kind of criticism of Khodorkovsky in the Times either before the crisis or a year or so after, when Khodorkovsky's stake was firm.

Just as bizarre is Zolotov's attempt to spin VNU's sale of its 35% in very Sauercentric terms. The deal was a sale of a stake by one party, VNU, to another party, Prof-Media, but by Zolotov's account you'd think Sauer had ingeniously arranged the whole thing simply in order to strengthen The Moscow Times' alleged editorial integrity.

Even by Zolotov's own account, the "Strategic Alliance" deal is one of the least transparent, murkiest deals reported in The Moscow Times in years, a murkiness that runs counter to all The Times has preached. Through the murk we can surmise that Sauer's role was likely that of spoiler at best. VNU wanted to sell its 35% stake in Independent Media. Potanin's Prof-Media wanted to buy it. Rival oligarch Khodorkovsky owned a 10% stake which probably was an obstacle in Potanin's mind. Sauer, who was essentially being passed from one oligarch to another like a Moldovan sex slave, got thrust into the role of middleman and somehow wound up with Khodorkovksy's 10% stake -- which looks more like a tip than anything.

Zolotov's article slyly turns reality on its head through hints and murk, giving the impression that Sauer engineer the whole deal, and that he had bought VNU's 35% stake himself, held on to it for some time, perhaps profiting to the tune of tens of millions when he "sold" it to Prof-Media. Anyone with a little understanding of how deals like this work knows that Sauer's role was more like that of drug mule.

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