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Russia's Rupert Murdoch

Russia's biggest media tycoon, Yury Kovalchuk, is expanding his growing empire as the country's election season heats up ­ prompting comparisons between his friendship with Vladimir Putin and the influence wielded in Britain by embattled tycoon Rupert Murdoch.

Kovalchuk's National Media Group has just purchased the Russkaya Sluzhba Novostei radio station ­ his third media acquisition in the last six months. This spring, Kovalchuk, a prime shareholder in the influential Bank Rossiya, bought a 25 percent stake in Channel One television and controversially snapped up Izvestia, firing most of the daily newspaper's journalists.

The latest acquisition was announced Friday ­ a day after the Federal Anti-Monopoly Service approved the deal, which was under negotiation for three years.

Kovalchuk's media giant purchased 100 per cent of Kontinent LLC from Russian Media Group (RMG), which owned Russkaya Sluzhba Novostei and five more radio stations.

"Radio Russkaya Sluzhba Novostei is a non-core asset for Russian Media Group and we considered the possibility of selling it. The market conditions for this are now good," Sergei Kozhevnikov, general director at Russian Media Group, told The Moscow News in an e-mail.

Political influence

While it's common for Russian oligarchs and billionaires to invest in the media ­ with many on the Forbes top 100 list owning several outlets ­ the latest bid by Kovalchuk is a clear signal of politics getting into the mix, analysts said.

"This kind of acquisitions is closely connected with the upcoming elections. This is in the interest of Kovalchuk himself, because he aims at expanding his media influence. In our country it's clear that this kind of media purchases is connected with politics," Olga Kryshtanovskaya, a leading sociologist, told The Moscow News, adding that Kovalchuk has all the trappings of Russia's Rupert Murdoch.

Phone hacking scandal

Murdoch's News Corp is in deep trouble in Britain over its involvement in an illegal phone hacking scandal, and its former CEO in the country, Rebekah Brooks, was arrested in London on Sunday over her alleged part in the affair. Murdoch has frequently been criticized in rival media outlets for having excessive influence over successive British prime ministers, from Margaret Thatcher onward.

In Russia, News Corp owns several media assets, including 50 percent of Nashe and Best FM radio stations and 33 per cent of the Vedomosti business daily.

"Many of the oligarchs in Russia have their interest set on media," Dmitry Abzalov, an analyst with the Centre for Political Trends, told The Moscow News.

"Kovalchuk is just like [Alexander] Mamut, [Alisher] Usmanov, [Oleg] Deripaska, [Alexei] Mordashyov and [Roman] Abramovich, so it's not surprising that he is building up his own media empire." Kovalchuk, who is seen as a close friend of Vladimir Putin, is also close to media mogul Aram Gabreliyanov, whose NewsMediaRus group became the co-owner of Izvestia along with National Media Group.

Dorenko's role

That is raising questions of what will happen to Russkaya Sluzhba Novostei's editorial policy. The radio station's editor-in-chief, Sergei Dorenko, has been a popular TV and radio anchor for over a decade ­ and became infamous in 1999-2000 over his criticism of Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov and the prominent role he played in the election campaign.

"Dorenko is a prominent media figure. Therefore it's possible that this is also a decision made purely for branding purposes," Abzalov said. "This is done before the political season starts in order to restructure the station and reformat it. There may also be a lot of interference in the editorial policy, but this is going to be known only in August."

Dorenko insisted that the purchase would not affect the station's editorial policy, however.

"I personally know Aram Gabreliyanov and Alexander Ordzhonikidze [General Director at National Media Group] ­ both of them are professionals and I believe they know where the radio station should head to," Dorenko told The Moscow News by telephone.

"I'm not clapping my hands of course, but this is done for the good. They bought us as a promising and well-run radio station, so I don't think that there will be a lot of interference in editorial policy."

In an interview with Gazeta.ru published before Friday's announcement, Dorenko said that no one had had asked his opinion about the sale of the radio station. "It turned out that I have not the slightest relation to the capitalization of the station," he was quoted as saying.

Longer-term strategy?

While some experts agree that the purchase of Russkaya Sluzhba Novostei is primarily a pre-election move by Kovalchuk's empire, others think the move is more about long-term influence over the media.

"Dorenko will never play the role he played in 1999-2000, and the chances are slight that he will take part in the election campaign," Georgy Ilyichov, a former editor of the Izvestia politics desk and now an independent journalist, told The Moscow News.

Ilyichov added that even though National Media Group has been buying up assets, it's not necessarily connected to the election campaign.

"It's for the aftermath of May 2012, when the country will face very difficult post-election events, and the authorities will have to secure their power through the media," Ilyichov said.

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