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Embattled Russian Mogul Finds a New Cause

Moscow-Vladimir Gusinsky isn't out of hot water with the Russian government yet.

Media-MOST, the media company he controls, was raided in May by federal agents in ski masks with machine guns, who were seeking evidence that the company was eavesdropping on high-ranking government officials.

Gusinsky, Media-MOST's chairman, was held in jail for four days last month on charges of embezzlement related to his alleged participation in an illegal privatization of Russkoye Video, a state-owned television company in St. Petersburg.

On July 11, prosecutors said they had created a separate Gusinsky case and confiscated Media-MOST documents relating to its ownership structure and its deals with RAO Gazprom, the partially state-owned natural-gas monopoly and Media-MOST's minority shareholder, which has guaranteed more than $370 million of Media-MOST loans.

Many observers contended that the heat stems from Gusinsky's backing of the wrong political party in this past spring's presidential elections.

Despite his confrontations with the Kremlin, Gusinsky's embattled and money-losing NTV Plus direct-to-home platform may be part of a new effort to build up Russian long-distance learning.

At the center of the project is the nonprofit Education in the New Millenium Foundation, which was founded last July by a team of TV executives who helped to establish the channel Center TV, which served as a political mouthpiece for Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov.

Boris Vishnyak, president of the foundation, said he has already launched a pilot project-Shkolnik TV. Its 30-minute programs geared toward high-school seniors are transmitted in Moscow on the Kosmos TV wireless cable system.

For the next academic year, Vishnyak has two ambitious plans that are currently being discussed with the Education Ministry.

One project is to secure government funds that would enable him to turn Shkolnik into a national channel that would be packaged with NTV Plus' Internet-access service.

Shkolinik would be transmitted via the state-owned Express satellite or over Media-MOST's Bonum 1 and Eutelsat-W4 birds. A rural school would need to install receiving and decoding equipment, which would be funded by national and regional government entities.

Deputy education minister Alexander Kondakov noted that out of the country's 46,000 rural schools, 40,000 have no computers. "The level of education is desperately low," in most such schools, he added.

Vishnyak's other project-Teleshkola-is a commercial educational service. Students would pay about $250 for basic NTV Plus equipment, plus about $500 per year for two channels on NTV Plus, a set of textbooks and computerized tests. The long-distance learning package is geared toward potential university applicants.

NTV Plus-which launched in 1998, and which was badly hampered by the Russian economic crisis that year-claims about 120,000 subscribers. About 100,000 pay between $9 and $32 per month for packages including more than 40 Russian and foreign channels.

Still, even the least-expensive package and the cost of the equipment-about $300-are too much for the vast majority of Russians.

Although Vishnyak said he was ready to go ahead with both projects in September, Kondakov was more cautious in his estimates, saying that the body would hold a tender in August, as it is obliged to do by law. He was nonetheless upbeat about Vishnyak's proposals, saying that they have good prospects.