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Russia’s Free Press Withers Away

President Vladimir Putin is neither a butcher nor an anti-liberal. He is not even an anti-Westernizer. He speaks German fluently (being the first Russian leader in almost eighty years to command a foreign language, if we disregard comrade Stalin, who spoke Russian) and is said to be studying English. Putin is confident that market reforms are necessary for Russia. And he tends to think that democratic institutions are somehow indispensable for the economy to flourish. For him they probably seem like wigs, which are ubiquitous in British courts although their relation to justice remains obscure.

Putin’s KGB past reveals itself in his strong beliefs that every problem has only one solution, that there is only one view of what is good or bad for Russia. By this standard, any dissenting view is anti-Russian. Hence his attitude toward the mass media. Heis ready to tolerate having this “wig” on his head, but he seriously doubts whether there is a point in having his skull sweat beneath it.

When the independent television station and other mass media began to criticize Russian policies in Chechnya in early 2000, Putin was infuriated. He decided that enough was enough. In March 2000 the Russian president read his first annual address to the members of the Russian parliament. What he said sounded like a threat: “Sometimes…media turn into means of mass disinformation and a tool of struggle against the state.” The Doctrine of Information Security issued by the Russian government several months later made it clear that state-owned media must dominate the information market.

Putin made himself even clearer in his speech to the relatives of sailors killed on the Kursk submarine. He had been venomously criticized in the press and on television, and he was angry and frustrated. “Those journalists and their masters who are in the first ranks of critics today are those same people…who destroyed the Russian state, the army, and the navy,” he said.

To Putin, Media MOST, the media empire owned by the tycoon Vladimir Gusinsky, appeared especially “anti-state.” In that empire the central component was NTV, the only privately owned nationwide TV channel in Russia. Putin’s goal was to squelch Media MOST, take NTV under government control, and destroy the evil mogul. The question was how to do it.

The first post-Communist years were years of freedom. It may be argued whether this was exclusively owing to Boris Yeltsin’s commitment to liberal values, or whether journalists, just as Yeltsin did, saw the greatest danger for Russia in a Communist comeback, and encouraged mutual support between the president and the press. Or perhaps the state was so weakened that it could not defend itself against an unfettered press and television.

Anyhow, those ten years of freedom and openness to the world were not in vain. Putin was concerned that he look enlightened and democratic; and therefore his government would not resort to rough, straightforward methods. He would not ban publications, take broadcasting licenses away, or impose censorship. Putin did not want the campaign against Gusinsky and his company, Media MOST, to look like a violation of the freedom of the press.

The Russian government chose instead to use sophisticated covert operations that take a considerable amount of time. Putin’s KGB background led him to resort to disguise and deception. In his book of interviews he expressed admiration for the professional performance of his KGB colleagues of the Seventies, whose job was to handle dissidents. The KGB, Putin wrote approvingly, acted “on the sly, so that [their] ears would not stick out, god forbid.”*

The operation against Media MOST proceeded through two strategies. One was carried out by the chief prosecutor’s office, which started criminal proceedings against Gusinsky for alleged financial crimes. The idea, apparently, was to intimidate Gusinsky and his media companies into submission. The second strategy was to exploit Gusinsky’s disputes with other businesses. Gusinsky was vulnerable because Media MOST had huge debts, and his creditors—particularly Gazprom, the powerful natural gas monopoly, still controlled by the state—could be used as instruments to bring pressure on him. Gusinsky had borrowed lavishly and spent freely (he even bought his own communications satellite). He expected that his businesses would grow fast; but the financial crisis of 1998 dealt a blow to his media holdings, and particularly to his TV station.

The most spectacular episode of the government’s “criminal” operation against Gusinsky took place in early May of 2000. It opened with a raid on Gusinsky’s Media MOST offices by masked security servicemen carrying guns. He was charged with having embezzled funds in a privatization deal that was made several years ago; but the charges were murky and the evidence far from persuasive. In the following months Media MOST’s offices were searched dozens of times, Gusinsky’s employees were interrogated, and their apartments were searched. However, the charges against Media MOST never stood up. In June 2000, the tycoon was arrested, released three days later, and then put under house arrest.

At that moment, Putin was in Europe, and at every press conference he was asked to comment about the arrest of Gusinsky. Putin claimed that the case against Gusinsky was not political and that the prosecutors were entirely independent. He said he could not reach his chief prosecutor on the phone. Yet at one of the press conferences he displayed detailed knowledge of Gusinsky’s credit history, as if he were a government lawyer on the case. His ears were definitely sticking out.

While Vladimir Gusinsky was kept under house arrest in Russia, the two lines of attack—the criminal prosecution and the business dispute—converged. Gusinsky was secretly offered a deal by Gazprom, his biggest creditor. As a guarantor of Gusinsky’s debt to Crédit Suisse First Boston, Gazprom had to pay his debt when the tycoon failed to meet his obligations. The debt amounted to hundreds of millions of dollars. Gusinsky was told that if he’d sell his media business to Gazprom he would be set free. The deal was later nicknamed “freedom for shares.”

Gusinsky signed the sales agreement, but insisted that the minister of the press agree to act as a guarantor of the deal and that he sign a document saying this. The minister agreed to guarantee that the deal would be carried out and he signed a protocol to this effect. Gusinsky was released and went abroad; and shortly after that, both the sales agreement and the protocol were made public. The sale never happened. The minister was expected by many to be fired, but he wasn’t. However, the prosecutor’s office apparently was getting nowhere. There was a lot of embarrassment and scandal, but Gusinsky’s media holdings continued to be run in much the same way by the people he had hired.

From this moment on, prosecutors were gradually moved away from the foreground; the campaign against Gusinsky then concentrated on Gazprom’s claims with the aim of taking over NTV by way of a debt settlement which would give Gazprom a big stake in NTV and other Media MOST companies. Alfred Kokh, a smart business operator, was appointed to take charge of this mission. Kokh was known to hate Gusinsky personally because of an earlier fight with him over business matters. He distanced himself from the prosecutors’ bungled case and turned the campaign against Gusinsky into a boring and extremely complex commercial litigation. After a while, the public forgot about the “criminal” prosecution and came to regard the conflict as a mere business dispute. Gusinsky himself had gone to live in Spain, where a court deliberated for several months on whether to extradite him to Russia. The Russian government’s request was turned down on April 18.

By early April Gazprom finally won the litigation and appointed its own men to run NTV. The NTV journalists tried to resist. They claimed that the court’s decisions had been blatantly manipulated and they tried to block the new managers from entering the building. For a while, it even looked as if the journalists had managed to call public attention to the cause of freedom of the press. But eventually, NTV was taken over by the new managers. At 4 AM on April 14 they entered the NTV offices with newly hired security guards. The old guards left; no force was used. The workforce of NTV split. Several dozen journalists, some of them NTV’s best reporters and anchors, left and are currently broadcasting on another channel, which has a much smaller audience.

On April 17 Media MOST’s daily newspaper Sevodnia was shut down. On the same day everyone on the staff of my own magazine, Itogi, a newsweekly which was published in cooperation with Newsweek, was fired and replaced by a new team, which the publisher was confident would obey his orders. (They immediately produced their first issue—using our design and format and filling it with their own stories, which tended to have less political content. Newsweek withdrew from the partnership. The new staff will most likely turn our magazine into a lighter and less political publication.) Our publisher, who used to be Gusinsky’s junior partner, joined Gazprom as soon as Gazprom got a share in Media MOST through its debt settlement. The publisher was apparently driven by a desire to curry favor with the Kremlin. As I write, the staff members of Ekho Moskvy, the very popular Moscow radio station that is also part of Media MOST, expect a takeover on May 4. The biggest independent media group has been stamped out.

The Media MOST takeover will undoubtedly have a highly damaging effect on Russia’s regional papers and TV stations, which have long been under pressure from local political authorities. The fact that NTV was taken under government control is a clear signal to those authorities: if this can be done to NTV, we can get away with anything. Further crackdowns, if the Kremlin deems them necessary, will be made easier by the fact that a large proportion of Russians are in favor of tightening government controls and of entrusting the government with more authority in every sphere of life. After years of virtually unlimited freedom, the old Russian attitudes are returning: people feel abandoned and are anxious to be protected and taken care of.

In polls, a huge majority of Russians expressed their sympathy with the situation of NTV; but most of them also appeared unconcerned that all three national TV channels are now under government control. Over half of the population, it seems, would not mind if censorship were brought back.

Moreover, quite a few Russian journalists see nothing wrong with working for the state. Among them are writers and broadcasters who became famous during the years of liberation from the Communist regime, yet who today eagerly serve the government. And if only a tiny minority of Russians show interest in a free press, why would the unprincipled Putin government bother to preserve it? The raison d’être for freedom of the press is fading away.

Former Itogi staffers, including myself, are determined to start a new magazine, a weekly that will be as liberal and independent as our old Itogi was. We will try our best to be financially independent, so as not to give the government a chance of interfering. After we were fired, we created a new Web site, and our colleagues from Ekho Moskvy Radio Station—for the while one of the last survivors of Media MOST—gave us time on the air. Our first radio version of Itogi was broadcast on April 21. The managers of Ekho Moskvy are willing to give us time every week; but they are far from sure they can continue doing so if Gazprom takes over.

  1. *

    See Vladimir Putin, First Person: An Astonishingly Frank Self-Portrait (Public Affairs, 2000).

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