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Russia state gas firm to buy biggest paper

Written by: Staff
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MOSCOW, Nov 22 (Reuters) Russian state-run gas giant Gazprom has said it was buying the country's biggest newspaper, months before elections when the media will help influence who succeeds President Vladimir Putin.

Gazprom-Media, which owns Russia's biggest private television station NTV and the Izvestia broadsheet, will complete a deal to buy the Komsomolskaya Pravda tabloid by early next year, said company head Nikolai Senkevich.

''We are rushing to do it by the end of the year but it will probably happen in January,'' Senkevich was quoted as saying by Interfax news agency. It did not report the size of the deal.

A tabloid that used to be the newspaper of the Communist Party's youth league, Komsomolskaya Pravda reaches 2.1 million readers daily, according to research by TNS Gallup Media.

Gazprom-Media says it is driven by commercial motives, but one media commentator said the acquisition was part of jostling by rival Kremlin clans to have their candidate replace Putin when he steps down in 2008.

Gazprom's board is chaired by Dmitry Medvedev, the First Deputy Prime Minister who analysts say is one of the front-runners for the president's job.

''This is an internal Kremlin struggle for column inches ahead of 2008,'' said journalist Viktor Shenderovich, who joined the opposition after his satirical programme on NTV was taken off the air.

''This means Komsomolka ... will concern itself with support for Mr Medvedev closer to the election and pour compromising material on others,'' Shenderovich told Reuters, using the nickname for the newspaper.

Russians vote in a Dec. 2007 parliamentary election which is widely seen as a dress rehearsal for the presidential vote three months later. Putin must step down because the law restricts him to two consecutive terms.

Analysts say given Putin's popularity and the Kremlin's tight grip on power, whomever Putin anoints as his chosen successor will be overwhelming favourite to win in 2008.

MEDIA SQUEEZE Glowing coverage in the state-controlled media played a key role in transforming Putin from a little-known bureaucrat to a presidential contender before he was elected for his first term in 2000.

Kremlin critics say Putin has squeezed media freedoms by bringing major newspapers and television channels under the control of companies with close ties to the state.

Putin denies this, saying Russia has never before had so many independent media outlets..

Steel tycoon Alisher Usmanov this year bought Kommersant, one of Russia's last big independent newspapers, and Kremlin-loyal companies Severstal and Surgutneftegaz bought major stakes in television channel REN TV last year.

The Gazprom-Media chief said it was taking time to thrash out the details of a complex agreement to buy Komsomolskaya Pravda, but he saw no major obstacles to completing the deal.

The paper specialises in celebrity news and prints photographs of bikini-clad readers on its back page. Its coverage of Putin is deferential.

Komsomolskaya Pravda is owned by Prof-Media, an arm of financial and banking holding Interros. Billionaire metals tycoons Vladimir Potanin and Mikhail Prokhorov control Interros.

Gazprom, whose CEO is Putin ally Alexei Miller, has been on a massive shopping spree over the past four years, buying up electricity, media, nuclear and oil assets. The Russian state has a majority stake in the gas monopoly.

REUTERS DKS PM0418

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