Mystery over tycoon's link to top paper

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SIX MONTHS before the start of Russia's elections, in which the media will play a crucial role, the country's last independent newspaper has been bought by two Iranian-born businessmen, suspected of acting for a tycoon behind the Kremlin.

"We are not a front for anybody," insisted Kia Joorabchian, 27, who with Reza Irani-Kermani, 31, his partner in the firm American Capital, has announced the purchase of 85 per cent of the respected daily Kommersant.

Russian media watchers believe that Boris Berezovsky, the "oligarch" with reported influence over the Yeltsin family, is lurking in the background. Mr Berezovsky denies a role in the takeover. "I have no idea who stands behind them [the Iranians]," he said. Mr Berezovsky does admit to buying 15 per cent of Kommersant from its former director general, Leonid Miloslavsky.

The Iranians, who studied in Britain before setting up their "emerging markets" investment fund in New York, speak no Russian. "Whoever is named [as owner], the face is all the same - Boris Berezovsky," Mr Miloslavsky said.

Mr Berezovsky, so close to Rupert Murdoch that he was invited to his recent wedding, is already the biggest media tycoon in Russia, wielding influence over ORT, the former state-owned and now first commercial television channel.

Kommersant, which aimed to be a cross between The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times, struggled to keep its independence under its founder, Vladimir Yakovlev, but it was millions of dollars in debt. The editor, Raf Shakirov, said his journalists would continue to work as before, reserving the option to resign if they felt any pressure from the new management.

"Perhaps the only way to find out who exactly bought the paper is to read it intently in the remaining six months before the elections," said Novaya Gazeta, a rival newspaper.

The fuss surrounding the sale of Kommersant highlights public concern over the fairness of elections to parliament in December and to the presidency in 2000. It is widely thought that he who controls the media holds the key to power.

A new Ministry for the Press, Broadcasting and Mass Media has just been created. Despite assurances from the Prime Minister, Sergei Stepashin, that this is not a Ministry of Propaganda, many see it as a throwback to Soviet methods.

The outcome of the parliamentary elections will indicate who might do well in the presidential poll. The Moscow Mayor, Yuri Luzhkov, and the former prime minister Yevgeny Primakov are seen as a serious threat by Mr Yeltsin, who is believed to want a successor in his own mould. Rumours persist that Mr Yeltsin may try to hang on to power, possibly by linking Russia to the former Soviet republic of Belarus in a union and then declaring himself head of the new state.

There is also speculation that Mr Yeltsin may try to throw Mr Luzhkov off balance by bringing forward the presidential poll and promoting one of his proteges, such as Mr Stepashin or the Balkan envoy, Viktor Chernomyrdin.

But Mr Yeltsin insists he plans to do things constitutionally. In a recent interview with Izvestia, he promised Russians that next year he would be doing nothing more arduous than writing his memoirs.