News that Alisher Usmanov, an Uzbek-born Russian oligarch and president of Gazprominvestholding, had bought the publishing house broke Wednesday night. How much Usmanov, who also owns the massive Metalloinvest holding, paid remains unclear but the market price is said to be around $200 million. The Kommersant daily, known for its opposition to the government, claimed Thursday that the deal was worth $300 million.
Kommersant Editor Vladislav Borodulin, in Beijing for a forum of chief editors of Chinese and Russian media, appeared relatively unconcerned about the two-week delay before the new owner met staffers.
"We have been told that the new owner of the newspaper will be busy until then," he said. "Perhaps, it is even better because everyone will have time to calm down, the first wave of comments will subside, and we will be able to discuss things calmly."
Gazprom Media, the division of the state-owned energy giant, has in recent years taken control of once independent television station NTV, its satellite division NTV+, regional broadcaster TNT, Echo of Moscow (Ekho Moskvy) radio station, broadsheet Izvestia and current affairs weekly magazine Itogi (Results).
But Kommersant Director General Demyan Kudryavtsev said Wednesday that Usmanov, who served six years in a Soviet prison for fraud, was acting as a private individual in the deal.
Apart from its eponymous daily, Kommersant publishes a regional version, several magazines, including popular political edition Vlast (Power) and financial journal Dengi (Money), and launched the Kommersant-Ukraine daily in Kiev in July 2005. The publishing house employs 800 people and has a readership of over a million.
Editor Borodulin said the newspaper's shareholders had not consulted him about the sale and he only learned the news on August 28.
"But I am only a hired manager like all the other Kommersant personnel, and the deal is within the competence of the company's shareholders alone," he said.
Kommersant's previous owner, Georgian tycoon Badri Patarkatsishvili, said earlier in the year he planned to sell 100% of his publishing business for no less than its market value, estimated at $200 million.
Patarkatsishvili, who lives in Tbilisi, obtained the publishing house earlier this year from his business associate and controversial Russian tycoon Boris Berezovsky, now a political refugee in Britain. Patarkatsishvili is wanted in Russia on fraud and embezzlement charges, and Russian prosecutors are seeking Berezovsky's extradition from the United Kingdom for allegedly wishing to stage a coup in Russia.
Borodulin said he was not inclined to dramatize the situation, and added that the newspaper's current policy would meet the commercial interests of its new owner.
"I think if shareholders are interested in the commercial performance of the company, they should make every effort to hold on to the core of the personnel and leave its main policy line intact," he said.
He admitted, however, that the first thing to do would be to talk to the new owners and find out how they wanted to run the company.
"It would be too early to say now whether I believe promises that the editorial policy of Kommersant will be left unchanged," Borodulin said.
Director General Kudryavtsev said Wednesday that the deal was fait accompli.
"I have no comment to make. I am not a party to the deal, but it is happening," he said.
Kudryavtsev said there was no suggestion of any personnel changes or amendments to the editorial policy, and declined to reveal the details of the deal and its value, only saying that they suited both sides.
Patarkatsishvili earlier estimated Kommersant at $150-160 million but said the business premium was more than the price.
In a telephone interview with the NTV television channel on Wednesday night, Usmanov said he had decided to make a long-term investment and try a new business.
"I am now completing a deal to acquire this business asset," he said. "All the details of the deal have been agreed, and only technical and legal aspects remain to be finalized."
"It is new interesting business for me," he said. "I decided to buy it."
According to Forbes magazine, the seller in the deal, Patarkatsishvili, became the business partner of auto tycoon Boris Berezovsky and then Roman Abramovich in the 1990s by helping handle the 1997 privatization of Sibneft oil company (sold to Berezovsky for an estimated $100 million, but later found to be worth billions). Abramovich had Patarkatsishvili manage a $3 billion investment in Russian Aluminum soon after.
After President Vladimir Putin came to power in 2000, Patarkatsishvili settled in Tbilisi and was charged in absentia in 2001 along with Berezovsky by the Russian Prosecutor General's Office with defrauding a total of $13 million from Russia's largest car manufacturer, AvtoVAZ. Both dispute the charges, Forbes said.