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Gusinsky: Media baron of the East
MOSCOW, Russia -- Media magnate Vladimir Gusinsky is sometimes compared to Western media barons like Rupert Murdoch for championing liberal, pro-Western ideas through his business empire.
And the lawyers who are fighting to block the father-of-two's return to Russia from Spain where he has been arrested, say the allegations of fraud he faces back home are politically motivated.
His Media-Most holding company is the nucleus of Russia's only independent media empire with outlets including NTV television, Ekho Moskvy radio and the Sevodnya and Itogi newspapers.
His media once strongly backed Boris Yeltsin as president, notably in the 1996 election, but have since become increasingly critical of the Kremlin, notably of the military campaigns in Chechnya.
Russian liberals and Western commentators have linked the moves by authorities against Media-Most to fears of a clampdown on free speech and democratic freedoms under President Vladimir Putin, elected in March.
Gusinsky, 48, who studied the gas and oil industries, worked as a theatre director and who even drove a private taxi before launching his business empire, has said that Russian authorities were using strong-arm methods to gag him.
He said they had used the threat of prison to force him to turn over control of NTV to the state-dominated natural gas monopoly Gazprom, which had guaranteed nearly $500 million of Gusinsky's debt.
The settlement that Media-Most finally reached with Gazprom stripped Gusinsky of his controlling stake in NTV, by far the most influential source of information outside the Kremlin's control.
Media-Most now holds 49.5 percent of the television station's shares while Gazprom holds 46 percent. But Media-Most's stake includes 19 percent held by a bank and pledged to Gazprom as collateral on loans coming due next year.
Ability to survive
The two companies have pledged to work together to find a foreign buyer for a large stake in NTV to prevent Gazprom from taking control next year, but so far no investor has publicly come forward.
Gusinsky's NTV played a groundbreaking role in Russian journalism in the 1990s, especially during the 1994-96 first Chechen War, making its name with daring, professional and often sharply critical frontline reporting.
Media-Most's relations with the Kremlin have blown hot and cold for years. In 1994 security forces controlled by Yeltsin's powerful chief bodyguard Alexander Korzhakov raided Gusinsky's offices and held his men for hours lying in the snow.
Many said at the time the attack had dealt a death blow to Gusinsky's career in a country where good ties with the Kremlin are paramount. But he showed an amazing ability to survive and soon switched back to the Kremlin camp.
In 1996, he was one of the seven so-called "oligarchs" -- politically influential businessmen -- to rally behind the visibly ailing and unpopular Yeltsin and help him beat off a strong Communist challenge and win a second term in office.
But after Russia's 1998 financial crash, Gusinsky's media empire fell on hard times.
He has been in self-imposed exile since Russian prosecutors issued an international warrant for him earlier this month after he failed to appear for questioning in November.
The businessman, also head of Russia's Jewish Congress, was detained in June for three days but released after prosecutors ruled the embezzlement charges lacked substance.
Reuters contributed to this report.
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