Moscow’s Federal Arbitration Court has overturned a liquidation order against TV6, Russia’s only remaining major independent TV network, raising hopes that the broadcaster may survive what it claims is a state-backed drive to have it shut down.

However, the case is far from closed, having been returned to a lower court for extra consideration, by which time TV6 hopes new laws and an improved financial performance for 2001 will aid its quest to stay on the air.

The liquidation order was imposed in September by an arbitration court which declared TV6 bankrupt – the result of a suit filed by oil firm and 15% shareholder Lukoil, which TV6 claims had been leaned on by the government (an accusation Lukoil hotly denies).

Many in Russia claim Vladimir Putin’s government is on a mission to silence independent media firms. Earlier this year, state-controlled gas concern Gazprom snatched control of one of the Kremlin’s fiercest critics NTV, many of whose reporters subsequently decamped to TV6 [WAMN: 17-Apr-01].

Meanwhile, the ownership of TV6 is under negotiation. Disgraced media mogul Boris Berezovsky is in talks to sell his 75% stake in the network’s parent Moscow Independent Broadcasting to investment fund TPG Aurora (owned by San Francisco-headquartered Texas Pacific Group).

Berezovsky – now living in London after a corruption scandal forced him out of Russia – met a representative of TPG Aurora recently, and will do so again in the new year, though the equity group’s Muscovite managing director Max Scherbakov said the price gap “seems too wide to bridge.” No figures were revealed, though a separate TPG employee valued the whole of TV6 at over $150 million.

New regulations forbid foreign firms owning a majority stake in television networks broadcasting to 50% or more of Russians. Scherbakov claims that TV6 currently falls just below this threshold, therefore allowing a sale to TPG, though the decision would be in the hands of Russia’s press ministry. Moreover, TPG intends to expand the network’s audience, leading to what Scherbakov described as a “kind of grey area” legally.

In a further twist, some have suggested that TPG, which estimated the value of NTV for Gazprom during that network’s fight for survival, may be a front for a government takeover of TV6 – claims which drew a stiff response from Scherbakov: “We are a reputable institution and we have no reason to act on anybody’s behalf.”

News source: Wall Street Journal