BOB GARFIELD: The oldest Russian language paper in the United States has a new owner, one with a decidedly shady reputation. Vadim Rabinovich may be involved in organized crime and gun-running, and he can't even get into America to see his latest acquisition. Reporter Fred Mogul has more.
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FRED MOGUL: On a newspaper rack outside the Brighton Beach Grocery, Novoe Ruskoe Slovo, the New Russian Word, sits sadly on a shelf, folded in half to take up less space. Immigrants pick up this country's only daily Russian language newspaper on their way to the elevated train above the store, although fewer and fewer people are buying it these days. Sales clerk Hussein Mouthan says the older readers outnumber younger ones.
HUSSEIN MOUTHAN: The young people they don't care. They read, like, English papers or something. They don't care for it. But it's the older people like, from like 40 years and over, people buy Russian paper.
FRED MOGUL: Novoe Ruskoe Slovo once had literary and journalistic prestige, but the 93 year old newspaper has languished. A recent issue was printed so badly that a front page photo of its new owner, Vadim Rabinovich, was offset and blurry. Rabinovich himself has something of a hazy record, having emerged from a Soviet prison in the early 1990s just as a sort of wild-west capitalism was taking off. But Rabinovich says he profited from the chaos, not the corruption. [FOREIGN LANGUAGE SPOKEN]
VADIM RABINOVICH (Translation): About 3 percent of the people got very rich, and 97 percent became very poor. Of those who got rich, many did so in dubious ways, though not necessarily illegally. Many people try to connect me with those others, because they don't understand what we do.
FRED MOGUL: Rabinovich says he started several enterprises, including a paging network, discount cards, and a television station partly acquired by American cosmetics mogul Ronald Lauder. He has also been investigated by American and international law enforcement for illegal arms-trafficking to Iran, North Korea and Liberia. In the Frontline documentary Gunrunners, producer Eric Young found what he believes are persuasive links between Rabinovich and at least one illicit weapons shipment from Ukraine to Liberia.
ERIC YOUNG: We have sources that told us, we had intelligence files that were identifying him as being involved in organized crime activities, and we certainly had him associating with other people that were involved according to intelligence files involved in organized crime activities.
FRED MOGUL: German author Juergen Roth has written a book about Rabinovich and reported extensively on the Russian and Ukrainian Mafia. Roth originally thought his Rabinovich project would be a portrait of an organized crime kingpin, but Roth came to believe his subject is a legitimate entrepreneur.
JUERGEN ROTH: I'm sure that there is no real evidence against Mr. Rabinovich. He is a businessman as every businessman in the former Soviet Union, which at the beginning of his career has contacts to criminal structure.
FRED MOGUL: Rabinovich has never been charged with criminal activity. The U.S. State Department has said it revoked his travel visa in 1995 but won't say why. Rabinovich denies he can't get a U.S. visa, although he still has yet to visit the New York headquarters of the newspaper he recently purchased. [FOREIGN LANGUAGE SPOKEN]
VADIM RABINOVICH (Translation): The owner of Novoe Ruskoe Slovo visited me several times, and I was able to look at the paperwork, but there's nothing for me to see there that I can't see from here.
FRED MOGUL: Rabinovich wants to transform the 16-page Novoe Ruskoe Slovo into something he hopes will look and function like a Russian-language Financial Times, not just in New York but around the world. In fact, he licenses the FT for his new paper and his other ones in Ukraine and Israel. Ukrainian media watcher Natalya Ligachova says the British news content improves Rabinovich's papers, but also highlights how bad they are. [FOREIGN LANGUAGE SPOKEN]
NATALYA LIGACHOVA (Translation): These productions are like hybrids -- yellow journalism produced by Rabinovich's writers and production staff, and high quality news from the Financial Times. Important, influential people and decision-makers don't take these papers seriously.
FRED MOGUL: Observers say that in addition to seeking profits, Rabinovich probably is expanding to the U.S. to try to bolster his political standing at home and abroad. He once fell out of favor with Ukraine's mercurial president, Leonid Kuchma, and moved his family to Israel. Now he's back in Kiev, publishing and broadcasting freely -- evidence his critics say, of his cozying up to a government known to harass and censor the media. Again, Natalya Ligachova. [FOREIGN LANGUAGE SPOKEN]
NATALYA LIGACHOVA (Translation): He belongs to the pro-presidential political forces. The president can control and influence him, and his newspapers very often use all sorts of spin that you wouldn't see in quality publications.
FRED MOGUL: Larisa Mudrak, the new editor in chief of Novoe Ruskoe Slovo and other Rabinovich publications, says her boss stakes out a position between the official and opposition press in the Ukraine and wants their reporters here in the U.S. to be neutral. [FOREIGN LANGUAGE SPOKEN]
LARISA MUDRAK (Translation): I've conferred with him, and he's given us the ability to operate as independent journalists, to take both sides in any situation, whether politics or anything else. So if we write about the positions of Democrats, we must also get Republicans at the same time.
FRED MOGUL: Mudrak says she and Rabinovich are out to make money, not curry favor with the Kuchma government. It's not clear if Novoe Ruskoe Slovo will help Rabinovich bring dollars or political currency back to Kiev, but he has already harvested at least one thing from his new New York newspaper -- jobs. Ten Manhattan-based page designers were fired, and their positions were moved to Ukraine where labor is cheap. For On the Media, I'm Fred Mogul.