MOSCOW, April 23 (Reuters) - A Russian businessman reported to have close ties to President Vladimir Putin is in talks to buy one of the country’s biggest cable operators in a deal worth over $1 billion, Kommersant newspaper reported on Wednesday.
The newspaper quoted sources close to the shareholders of National Media Group, who include Yuri Kovalchuk, as saying the group was negotiating the purchase of a 51 percent stake in the National Telecommunications company.
The firm owns the cable networks in Moscow and other big cities used to carry Internet and cable television traffic. It is owned by oil-to-metals magnate Suleiman Kerimov.
The National Media Group said no one was available for comment. A spokeswoman for Surgutneftegas declined to comment. A source familiar with the situation said Severstal was not involved in the deal, but that it may be a private project of Severstal main shareholder Alexei Mordashov.
Under Putin’s eight-year rule, ownership of the Russia’s biggest television stations and newspapers has been concentrated in the hands of state corporations or Kremlin-friendly businessmen.
At the same time, major media have become deferential in their coverage of the Kremlin and the opposition alleges it is almost excluded from the airwaves.
Free speech campaigners say the Internet is the last bastion for political debate still outside the state’s control. Some campaigners warn that this sector of the media is now in the Kremlin’s sights.
Putin is to step down on May 7 when his protege Dmitry Medvedev will be sworn in as president. Putin will stay on as prime minister and is expected to keep his grip on the levers of power.
The Russian edition of Forbes magazine for the first time this year included Kovalchuk in its list of the country’s 100 richest people, estimating his wealth at $1.9 billion.
Kovalchuk’s Bank of Russia is the main shareholder in the National Media Group, Kommersant reported. National Media Group already owns two second-tier national television stations, Ren-TV and Fifth channel. (Reporting by Anastasia Teterevleva, Alexander Gelogayev and Denis Dyomkin; Writing by Christian Lowe; Editing by Louise Ireland)