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The Alfa Bank brought a defamation suit against Commersant
The Alfa Bank brought a defamation suit against Commersant, popular Moscow-based daily. Its recent contribution, "Banking Crisis Goes into the Street", was tarnishing Alfa reputation, assumed the bank, which evaluated its damage at eleven million US dollars. The Moscow Arbitration Court settled the case in the plaintiff's favour, yesterday, to launch yet another ticklish public debate in Moscow. First, the Russian press has never before come under such serious judicial reprisals. Second, owning the ill-starred paper is controversial Boris Berezovsky, now in London. Third, another tycoon-Mikhail Friedman, Berezovsky's sworn enemy-heads the Alfa. So it was not mere litigation but a duel of embittered moneybags. It is timely today to look back at the year 1995, when the two came to grips at who would own the Commersant, a juicy morsel, what with its impact on the Russian business community. Many conjectures are made on the case. Let us delve into the three best grounded. One rests on its judiciary aspect. True, the sensational contribution appeared when the Russian banking problems came to a peak, and focused on Alfa predicaments to make them worse. But then, the Commersant has never been a psychotherapeutic paper. On the contrary, the daily makes it a point to strongly warn its readers about impending dangers. Even if it was wrong in its apprehensions that time, its error certainly did not cost the huge sum. If this is the right version, further developments may prove it-the paper will bring an appeal, and the damages will shrink several-fold, or the litigants will eventually come to an amicable agreement. Another version sees the matter as another clash in the Friedman-Berezovsky warfare. The Commersant chose the Alfa for its central target intentionally. In an equally ostentatious move, the bank demanded exorbitant damages. If that was so, the case repeated the same old pattern. At the start of Boris Yeltsin's presidency, the Russian oligarchy was a well-knit community led by a banking septemvirate. Their sweet peace came tumbling with a scandalous Svyazinvest auction of 1996. Since then, tycoons' vendettas have an impact on Russian political and economic developments with hard and unexpected blows. If that is right, the Alfa Bank will be sticking to its point to the bitter end. Last but not least comes a political version, the most pleasing of all to Boris Berezovsky, who thoroughly enjoys his public image of an undaunted exile. Andrei Vassilyev, Commersant editor-in-chief, came up yesterday with a transparent and far-reaching hint. Certain tycoons are victimising his paper to please the Kremlin, he said. True, that might be Mikhail Friedman's point-but we can't be sure he hit the target. If the Commersant joins the Yukos on the casualty list, that will be too much of a good thing. Besides, even if the paper has to pay the eleven million, that will not settle the Berezovsky problem for the Kremlin-the proprietor's bank account will merely get somewhat leaner not to tell the slightest on the newspaper routine, Berezovsky bravely reassures. Political lining to the Commersant storm cloud may show, however, if the storm does break out with a sequence of similar suits, thunderbolt visits of fire and sanitary inspectors, and so on, and so forth-all to desperately harass the staff.
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