Russian president Vladimir Putin yesterday told journalists from TV network NTV that he will not oppose US media mogul Ted Turner’s attempt to buy a stake in the struggling station.

His statement marks the latest twist in a long-running battle over the future of NTV, whose reporters have been some of the fiercest critics of the Kremlin in recent years. In one corner is Vladimir Gusinsky, boss of NTV’s parent Media-Most, who is under house arrest in Spain on fraud charges; in the other is Gazprom, a natural-gas concern which is looking to turn its 46% stake into a majority holding.

The problem arises from Gazprom’s status as a partly state-owned company, which has raised in many eyes the spectre of government involvement in editorial policy and a clamp-down on criticism against the Kremlin.

Turner, vice chairman of AOL Time Warner, heads a group of Western investors prepared to buy a 25% stake in NTV and Media-Most for $300m. Joining him is financier George Soros, who claims that Western investment is the only thing standing between NTV’s independence and the clutches of the state.

Putin tried to allay some of these fears at the meeting by assuring NTV journalists – many of whom have threatened to leave should Gazprom be successful – that he also wants to see the station remain independent. Meanwhile, a presidential spokesman added that it is “vital to maintain the NTV reporting team regardless of who will hold the controlling stake or who will be on its board of directors.”

However, the race is beginning to hot up. Gazprom claims that a Moscow court has frozen a 19% stake which it is owed as collateral on loans, barring Media-Most from voting with these shares. This leaves Gazprom’s 46% holding as a majority stake. The gas company’s media chief Alfred Kokh has subsequently announced that three Gazprom officials will be appointed as directors in place of Gusinsky.

But NTV journalists remain defiant: “We told him [Putin] that we won't give in to the pressure, and the pressure really has been unprecedented,” commented news anchor Marianna Maksimovskaya, following the reporters’ three-and-a-half hour session with the president.

News source: Wall Street Journal