Oil and Gas

Russia's Gazprom sells stake in Izvestia newspaper

MOSCOW, May 21 (Reuters) - Russian gas monopoly Gazprom GAZP.MM has sold its majority stake in the Izvestia newspaper to a firm linked to a businessman reported to be a close ally of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.

Gazprom-Media said in a press release on Wednesday it had ceded control over a 50.19 percent share in Izvestia, one of Russia’s most prestigious and influential newspapers, to SOGAZ insurance company.

SOGAZ is part of a group controlled by Bank of Russia, whose chairman is Yuri Kovalchuk.

Russian media reports have said Kovalchuk has close ties to Putin, Russia’s former president, and that the two men were part of a select group that owned a cluster of villas near Russia’s second city of St Petersburg.

Putin handed over the presidency to his protege Dmitry Medvedev this month, but many analysts say that at least for the time being, Putin retains control over decision-making.

Under Putin’s eight-year rule, ownership of 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.

Izvestia was first published in 1917. In 2004 Raf Shakirov was sacked as editor for the newspaper’s coverage of the Beslan school siege in which more than 300 people were killed, many of them in a chaotic rescue attempt by security forces.

In May to October last year Izvestia had an average readership of 371,000, according to market research firm TNS Gallup Media, making it one of Russia’s most widely-read broadsheet newspapers.

One of the newspaper’s most valuable assets is its vast office in central Moscow.