LIVE UPDATES: Rumors are circulating that oligarch Mikhail Prokhorov may be selling his independent news site RBC under pressure from the Kremlin, which is annoyed by its critical coverage.
Welcome to our column, Russia Update, where we will be closely following day-to-day developments in Russia, including the Russian government’s foreign and domestic policies.
The previous issue is here.
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“Representatives of the Interpol headquarters expressed readiness to return to the review of this issue in the event that Moscow would prepare a package of additional materials on this case (regarding the murder of the mayor of Nefteyugansk).”
“No changes have occurred in the status of the case since the time the request was made to declare Khodorkovsky wanted, which was issued by Russian, was declared inconsistent with the rules of the organization.”
Khodorkovsky’s press secretary Kulle Pispanen told RBC that the Interfax claim was “the latest canard and plant by the Investigative Committee” in the media.
The false claim was picked up even by independent media and other credible sources and disseminated in English before news of Interpol’s rebuttal got out:
Earlier this year, the Russian Investigative Committee opened a case against Khodorkovsky, claiming he was involved in the murder of Petukhov, but Interpol has not followed suit.
— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick
Early today the Russian media began reporting that there were rumors of the sale of RBC, one of the few remaining independent wire services in Russia, RFE/RL’s Radio Svoboda reported.
Oneksim, the company led by oligarch Mikhail Prokhorov that owns RBC denied the rumors, RBC reported.
Gazeta.ru published claims based on multiple government sources that the sale was induced on orders from President Vladimir Putin, who was personally unhappy with the negative coverage of the Panama Papers implicating himself, his family members and close associates in corruption.
Translation: Mamut is buying RBC.
But Gazeta reported this morning that Prokhorov was in talks with other prospective buyers to sell Kvadra, his energy company and RBC.
“The order to sell RBC was handed down from the highest level,” a source told Gazeta — meaning from President Vladimir Putin himself.
While “a major Russian businessman” told Gazeta that “Prokhorov’s got everything for sale now,” a source within Oneksim told Gazeta that Prokhorov “is ridding himself of excess assets” but would not sell everything.
The chief shareholder of the media holding company RBC is a Cypriot offshore company called Pragla, Ltd., and Kvadra is owned by Cypriot companies Rinsoco Trading and Ragato Management from the British Virgin Islands, also under Prokhorov’s control. His largest deal was the sale of shares in Norilsk Nickel to Oleg Deripaska’s Rusal. According to various estimates, Prokhorov received $6 billion and shares in Rusal for selling his blocking portfolio.
The search of Oneksim was made seemingly demonstratively during Putin’s annual marathon talk-show last week. The searches hastened the sales of the companies, say sources.
“Kvadra is a difficult asset, and with a ‘big social burden’. The inspections could facilitate the lowering of the value of the shares in order to make a deal, say sources.
Gazeta also reports that, according to two “highly-placed officials and a source close to the Kremlin,” top officials are very unhappy with RBC’s editorial line. Articles on Putin’s family were particularly annoying, including a story on Katerina Tikhonova, called by Reuters “Putin’s daughter” (a claim denied by Peskov) and her husband, businessman Kirill Shamalov. The photo of Putin published with a story on the Panama offshore companies also provoked an “extremely negative” reaction from Putin personally, said a source.
The source in the government said Prokhorov and his people are “really scared, because they have a clear understanding that they have angered the first person of the country.”
Russians refer to their leaders as “the first person,” and Putin’s only book has that title.
Yegor Timofeyev, a representative of RBC, reacted on his Facebook page on Saturday to the claims of bias by RuPosters, saying that “there were several editorial questions on the draft article […] but Ruposters decided to focus precisely on the expert’s commentary” on privatization. Timofeyev said he could not see why some “agenda” was being sought behind what was “ordinary economic material.”
Prokhorov acquired RBC in 2010 for $80 million and holds 51.1% of its shares. It has lost value since then due to the ruble’s plunge; there is also a claim that it has debt of $220 million, according to a source “close to RBC and Oneksim.” Supposedly Oneksim was on the verge of converting the debt to shares in the company. Kommersant reported in 2014 that a sale of RBC for $250 million was being contemplated to cover a debt of $227 million.
Another source said Prokhorov would not mind selling RBC, but was asking “too high” a price.
Ultimately Gazeta did not mention Mamut as a buyer but Yuri Kovalchuk, whose media group owns REN-TV — the station that did the hit job earlier this month on Oneksim.
Osetinskaya declined to answer queries about her early leave or a possible sale of RBC. Analysts believe the sale is inevitable now that it is known of Putin’s personal ire.
Neither Prokhorov or any other Oneksim representatives had any official comment for Gazeta.
Translation: If RBC will be sold to Kovalchuk, Mamut, Chemezov, Usmanov or the Urals Media Group, you will be:
The results as of this hour with 2,059 responding were:
7% Not indifferent
10% Not following
— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick