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Monday, 4 September, 2000, 18:07 GMT 19:07 UK
Russian tycoon surrenders TV shares
Boris Berezovsky
Mr Berezovsky says he is responding to an ultimatum
By Russian affairs specialist Steven Eke

Russia's best-known oligarch Boris Berezovsky says he will hand over his shares in the country's largest television company (ORT) to journalists and other representatives of the creative intelligentsia.

He currently controls 49% of the shares in ORT, with the remainder belonging to the Russian state.

In an open letter to President Vladimir Putin, Mr Berezovsky stated that he was responding to an ultimatum, issued by the Putin administration, to give up his holding or face the consequences.

Mr Berezovsky's relationship with Mr Putin has not been smooth, and he recently resigned from Russia's State Duma in protest against what he called the President's 'authoritarianism'.

Collective ownership

In his letter, Mr Berezovsky called upon the state to transfer its holding in the company to a collective of journalists and intelligentsia.

While the move suggests that Mr Berezovsky is not prepared to give up his stake without a fight, some observers believe it may have come too late.

Grieving relatives of Kursk's crew
Media-state relations have worsened following Kursk submarine disaster
Several of Mr Berezovsky's closest associates at ORT have already been removed by presidential decree.

Media-state relations have also changed dramatically in Russia over recent weeks, largely as a result of the Kursk nuclear submarine disaster.

Almost all the Russian media openly condemned the authorities' unsuccessful rescue effort.

Even ORT, which is traditionally closer to the 'official line', reported the contradictory statements of the navy leadership and Mr Putin's inept handling of hostile coverage.

In response, Mr Putin launched a fierce attack on the oligarchs and independent media, accusing them of being party to the destruction of the Russian armed forces.

Yet Mr Berezovsky was instrumental in bringing Vladimir Putin to power and has fared, until now, relatively well.

The owners of independent media outlets have not been so lucky.

Crackdown

The Russian police and security services raided the offices of Media-Most, a media group owned by Vladimir Gusinsky, who is opposed to Russia's actions in Chechnya.

Mr Gusinsky was charged with serious financial crimes, but the charges were later dropped.

Vladimir Gusinsky
Vladimir Gusinsky: Charged with financial crimes
In return, Mr Gusinsky transferred his television channel (NTV) to another company wholly owned by the state, and has since left Russia.

Boris Berezovsky has shown himself to be a shrewd tactician in the past, and he has thrown down a challenging gauntlet to President Putin.

In calling for the Russian President to transfer the state's holding in ORT, he is asking Mr Putin to volunteer to a test of his democratic credentials.

More importantly, he is also pinning the responsibility for any curbs on the freedom of expression in Russia firmly on President Putin himself.

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See also:

20 Jul 00 | Media reports
Russian press predicts tycoon's demise
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