Turner's New Game: Russian Roulette
By Bill Powell

(FORTUNE Magazine) – If you had any doubts that Ted Turner was still (a) crazy, (b) gutsy, or (c) both, forget about them. Last month Turner (a vice chairman of AOL Time Warner, parent of FORTUNE's publisher) dispatched an investment banker to Moscow to talk about a $300 million investment in NTV, Russia's lone independent national television network. Just one problem: The network is in the middle of one of the nastiest political spats of the post-Soviet era, and its owner is currently under house arrest.

Turner's motives aren't readily evident. In his only public comment on the matter, he told CNN that he was simply trying to be "helpful." (Turner turned down FORTUNE's numerous requests for an interview.) This could be Ted the businessman, hoping to pick up a piece of a potentially valuable asset on the cheap. More likely it is Ted the global idealist at work, fresh from bailing out the U.N., now coming to the rescue of Russia's embattled free press. (He's not alone in that crusade: George Soros said at the annual Davos gabfest last month that he'd pitch in with some of his own money if a deal looked viable.)

Vladimir Gusinsky, who owns NTV's parent company, Media Most, faces two big problems. One is that the Russian President, ex-KGB agent Vladimir Putin, can't stand him or his network; Putin loathed NTV's unsparing coverage of the latest war in Chechnya and didn't appreciate Gusinsky's financial support of a rival political bloc during the 1999 elections. Last summer Putin had Gusinsky arrested on bogus fraud charges. Gusinsky was released after three days, only to be arrested again a few months later in Spain, on a Moscow-issued Interpol warrant. Under diplomatic pressure from the U.S., Spain released him, but Gusinky remains under house arrest (albeit in a very nice house--his palatial villa on the Costa del Sol).

Gusinsky's second big problem provides Turner's opening: Media Most owes Credit Suisse First Boston $262 million. The loan is due early this summer, and Gusinsky doesn't have the cash. Russia's giant state-owned gas company, Gazprom--which owns just under 50% of Media Most's shares--guaranteed the CSFB loan and is therefore in a position to gain a controlling stake if the company defaults. If that happens, Putin will have what he wants: outright state control of a classy TV network that has been a major annoyance to him. To keep Media Most from defaulting, Gusinsky must find someone else who will pay $300 million for a chunk of the company.

Enter our hero. Turner told Media Most that he was interested in a stake large enough to keep the company out of Putin's hands, but he also said that a deal would hinge on a Kremlin pledge not to interfere in NTV's affairs. Turner now wants a face-to-face meeting with Putin. He may feel that he can persuade the Russian President to lay off; the two have met twice before, once when Turner staged the Goodwill Games in St. Petersburg (Putin was then a key aide to the city's governor) and again last May, when Turner attended the opening of Mikhail Gorbachev's presidential library.

Even if Turner gets his meeting and assurances, it's unlikely that NTV will be free from government meddling. Since Turner's offer, Russian investigators have stepped up the pressure on NTV. In January they raided the network's offices and questioned one of its star anchorwomen about tax evasion. Would Putin & Co. really turn the other cheek the next time Gusinsky's journalists angered the powers-that-be just because a prominent foreigner owned part of the company? Ted Turner is a smart man. Surely he understands the answer to that question is nyet.