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Russia Press Minister Scolded

September 25, 2000

MOSCOW (AP) _ Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov scolded Russia’s press minister for signing an agreement at the center of a controversy surrounding Russia’s biggest private media group, and bailiffs moved Monday to freeze the company’s assets.

The document spells out the terms for the sale of Media-Most to the natural gas monopoly Gazprom. It was signed in July by Media-Most head Vladimir Gusinsky, Gazprom-Media chief Alfred Kokh and Press Minister Mikhail Lesin.

Gusinsky claimed last week that he had signed the agreement under duress in exchange for dropping fraud charges against him. Press freedom advocates saw the charges as part of a Kremlin campaign to muzzle Media-Most’s outlets, which have been critical of President Vladimir Putin.

In a meeting Saturday, Kasyanov told Lesin that he had erred in signing the document, the Interfax news agency said, citing the government information department. A government spokesman refused Monday to comment on the Interfax report.

On Monday, court bailiffs went to the headquarters of several Media-Most news organizations, including its flagship NTV television, to give notice of a freeze on the group’s stock.

Moscow’s chief bailiff, Svetlana Kukushkina, told The Associated Press they were executing an order issued last week by a Moscow court to bar transfer of shares pending the outcome of the dispute with Gazprom.

Gazprom is partly owned by the government and some critics have alleged its attempt to buy Media-Most was directed by the Kremlin. But Gazprom says the deal was prompted by economic considerations: Media-Most owes the gas monopoly millions stemming from loan guarantees the gas company gave in return for pledges of stock.

Media-Most said Lesin’s signature proved the Kremlin’s role in the deal. But Lesin said he had signed the document as a favor to Gusinsky, who he says asked for his support in the deal to settle Media-Most’s debts to Gazprom. Lesin has acknowledged that he shouldn’t have signed the document.

Gusinsky was jailed for four days this summer on charges that he defrauded the government in a privatization deal. The charges were dropped in July.

Former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, who heads an NTV advisory council, has pushed for a meeting with Putin to discuss the dispute. Putin agreed to a meeting Tuesday, the Kremlin said.

Gorbachev said Monday he would urge Putin to ``clearly state his position.″ He accused Lesin of acting like ``racketeer″ and said he should resign.

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