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Media key to Kremlin battle plan

A government crackdown and press feud herald coming elections. Can media stay free of controls?

By Special to The Christian Science Monitor / August 9, 1999


Russia's fragile press freedoms could become the first casualties as the country's political clans begin the battle for the ultimate political prize - the Kremlin.

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"High-ranking officials are putting pressure on the mass media and on journalists," warned the editors of 14 leading Russian news publications in an open letter to President Boris Yeltsin last week. "They are using their official clout and even the name of the Russian president to do this," the letter said.

The editors accuse Kremlin insiders, concerned about their own survival after Mr. Yeltsin leaves office next year, of ordering unwarranted tax raids and making other unspecified threats against news media that take an independent line in reporting the coming elections. A parliamentary vote is due in December, to be followed six months later by a presidential poll.

An early warning that the Kremlin may be planning to manipulate those elections was the creation, two months ago, of a press ministry to ride herd on the media.

In his first public interview, the new press czar, Mikhail Lesin, said he saw his job as trying to force news outlets to serve the interests of the state.

"The defense of the state from the free mass media is a pressing problem at present," Mr. Lesin said. "I don't agree with the thesis that the state is more dangerous to the media than the media is to the state. I believe quite the opposite."

The mayor's challenge

Though the Kremlin has yet to nominate its own candidate to succeed Yeltsin, it is already at war with outside challengers.

The president's inner circle seems particularly worried by Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov, a tough, ambitious player who is building an electoral coalition of powerful regional leaders that could prove unstoppable.

Several of the publications complaining of Kremlin harassment are owned by Vladimir Gusinsky, a media tycoon who has increasingly thrown his support behind Mr. Luzhkov.

"Freedom of expression, a crucial democratic freedom guaranteed by the Constitution, can be sufficiently protected under the current circumstances only by the intercession of the president," the editors' letter to Yeltsin said.

In a dramatic confirmation of those fears, one of the signatories, Raf Shakirov, chief editor of the respected Kommersant daily newspaper, was fired within days of the letter's publication.

Kommersant was purchased a month ago by Boris Berezovsky, the most outspoken of Russia's shadowy ultrarich power players, known as the oligarchs, and rumored to be the Yeltsin family's private financial adviser. Journalists at Kommersant say they expect a full-scale purge of the paper's staff in the wake of Mr. Shakirov's departure.

Other papers owned by Mr. Berezovsky have been trading highly personal allegations of corruption, theft, and conspiracy with media outlets owned by Mr. Gusinsky for weeks.

Analysts say this "newspaper war" is the first volley in a looming fight between the incumbent Kremlin clan, which includes Berezovsky and the challengers led by Luzhkov.