In a move reminiscent of the Soviet era's iron-fisted control of its news media, the Kremlin is on the verge of seizing a controlling stake of over 50% in one of the nation's leading daily newspapers, Izvestia.

The privately-owned daily, a loyal mouthpiece of the Soviet ruling elite prior to the collapse of Russia's communist system, has since 1991 been privately owned. With a daily print run of 200,000, it has built a national and international reputation for independent reporting.

According to a mole within the paper's parent company, industrial and banking conglomerate Interros, President Vladimir Putin's administration had "ordered" the company to sell its stake in Izvestia to Gazprom Media, a unit of Russia's state-owned gas monopoly.

But the alleged compulsory sale is denied by a Kremlin spokesman: "Companies make independent decisions based on their economic and corporate interests," he insisted.

Since former NKVD secret policeman Putin was elected to office in 1999, Gazprom has formed a habit of acquiring TV channels that challenge the Kremlin line. But newspapers have escaped the state's attention - until now. Comments former Izvestia editor in chief Raf Shakirov: "This shows they want to purge the print media, too,"

Takeover by Gazprom was the mechanism by which the Kremlin wrested control of the famously critical NTV television station from exiled media tycoon owner Vladimir Gusinsky - an act purportedly necessitated by "calling in Gusinsky's considerable debts".

Dmitry Oreshkin, head of the Merkator group media consultancy, describes Izvestia as "liberal, but [only] in measure". He predicts that its liberal reputation will be used by Gazprom as a Trojan horse.

"The paper will teach its reader - who is educated, liberal-minded, and oriented toward a Western value system - to be loyal to the policies of the Kremlin," Oreshkin is quoted as saying.

Data sourced from The St Petersburg Times (Russia) and Wall Street Journal Online; additional content by WARC staff