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.
"I think this affords them some protection," said Alexei Simonov of the Glasnost Defense Foundation, which monitors press freedom in the country, noting that Gorbachev's patronage could put a brake on any attempt by the government to curb the newspaper. "Novaya Gazeta is the main opposition newspaper in the country. They are attacking Putin on all levels."
The World Newspaper Congress has focused fresh attention on the declining state of press freedom in Russia, where national television stations have been brought under state control and influential newspapers and magazines such as Izvestia, Moskovskiye Novosti and Itogi have been snapped up by state-owned companies or businesses closely allied with the Kremlin.
"There is still very widespread skepticism, both inside and outside your country, about whether there exists any willingness to see the media become a financially strong, influential and independent participant in Russian society today," Gavin O'Reilly, president of the World Association of Newspapers, told the gathering Monday, as Putin sat a few feet away. "And sadly, no one can pretend that this is the case today, certainly not for newspapers."
In response, Putin noted that there were 53,000 print publications in Russia. "It would be absolutely impossible to control all of them, even if the state wanted to," he said.
But Putin's critics argue that the vast majority of those publications are nonpolitical and of no interest to the Kremlin, whereas media critical to the nation's political discourse, particularly television news, have been stifled.
There were also reports here Wednesday that Roman Abramovich, Russia's richest man, who was recently reappointed governor of a region in Siberia by Putin, is on the verge of buying Kommersant, a leading independent newspaper. The newspaper's general director, Demyan Kudryavtsev, denied the reports.
"The entire journalistic community is nervous" about pressure on the media, said Alexander Golts, a writer on military affairs at Novaya Gazeta. "It's clear that state policy is to take control over the print media through structures affiliated with the government or friendly businesses. That's why when we have news that some people have bought a stake in the country's single opposition newspaper, it makes me and others very nervous."
Golts, however, added that he spoke Wednesday to Dmitry Muratov, Novaya Gazeta's editor in chief, who assured him that there would be no change in editorial policy.
Others at the paper welcomed the purchase.
"Mikhail Sergeyevich has been our friend for a long time," said Sergei Sokolov, a deputy editor in chief, referring to Gorbachev. He noted that Gorbachev donated money from his 1990 Nobel Peace Prize to buy the newspaper's first computers in the early 1990s.
"We are absolutely confident there will be no interference," he said.