Gorbachev Invests in Newspaper

By Peter Finn
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, June 8, 2006

MOSCOW, June 7 -- Former Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev and Alexander Lebedev, a billionaire and often-contrary member of the ruling United Russia party, have bought a 49 percent stake in the Novaya Gazeta newspaper, a crusading publication that has often run tough articles about President Vladimir Putin.

In public, Gorbachev has expressed broad support for Putin's policies, praising him for stabilizing the country internally and strengthening it on the world stage. But some colleagues, speaking on condition of anonymity, said he is privately concerned about the increasing lack of political pluralism in the country, including state control of the media.

Gorbachev could not be reached for direct comment, but he spoke Wednesday at the World Newspaper Congress, which is being held here this week.

"You may ask us: Will the newspaper remain as it is now? We can just say that the editorial staff will continue to hold a controlling stake," Gorbachev said. "The newspaper's staff and we have agreed that the newspaper should keep its creative potential and continue to express a wide variety of opinions. We should -- this is one of our goals -- promote the newspaper's qualitative development in the interests of democratic values."

Lebedev, a member of parliament, said in a telephone interview that their investment would be used to turn the newspaper, which is published twice a week, into a daily with national reach.

"The most important task of any newspaper is to look objectively at the bureaucracy," said Lebedev, a banker, who is Russia's 21st-richest man, according to Forbes magazine. "For many years, Novaya Gazeta has had a reputation as objective and nonconformist, and that's what we want to strengthen."

Despite his membership in United Russia, Lebedev has frequently faulted its pro-Putin stance. "I have the right to criticize the Kremlin for the things they have done to this society: no civil society, no parties, no proper elections, no free mass media, and there's no parliament as far as exercising the proper controls over this bureaucracy," he said in a separate interview last month.

Lebedev said he and Gorbachev had been talking to the newspaper's editorial board for the last 12 months about making an investment.

Novaya Gazeta has become a kind of shelter for some of the country's best-known journalists who were purged from TV stations and various publications after criticizing the Kremlin.

The paper, however, is struggling financially, often unable to attract major advertisers. Its circulation outside Moscow, where it sells 170,000 copies, is weak.

The newspaper's board of editors, which includes senior journalists on the staff, will retain control of its 51 percent of shares. Gorbachev and Lebedev obtained their 49 percent stake from outside shareholders for $2 million, according to a source familiar with the deal.

The two men also committed to making an immediate $2 million investment to support the paper's growth. The new financing may allow Novaya Gazeta to expand its role as one of the country's few dissenting voices during parliamentary elections next year and a presidential election in 2008.


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