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Russia's glasnost questioned

Former President Mikhail Gorbachev is passionately defending freedom of the press.

By Scott Peterson and Fred Weir Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / September 21, 2000



MOSCOW

Freedom in the New Russia may have a price, and it can be a high one if you dare to criticize the Kremlin. Andrei Babitsky, a correspondent of the US-funded Radio Liberty discovered that earlier this year after being seized by Russian security police in Chechnya. He disappeared for weeks, after being "traded" to a mysterious group of armed men by his captors.

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Mr. Babitsky, presently under house arrest in Moscow, learned the hard way that the Russian government is often more concerned with a citizen's obedience than his constitutional rights.

Now, Vladimir Gusinsky, owner of Russia's largest independent media empire, says the Kremlin has dealt him exactly the same lesson. Arrested and held in Moscow's Butrskaya prison last June on an accusation of fraud, Mr. Gusinsky was exonerated and allowed to leave the country after promising to sell Media-Most, which includes several newspapers, a radio station, and Russia's only nonstate television network NTV, to the state-owned natural-gas giant Gazprom.

According to Segodnya, a newspaper owned by Media-Most, the deal contained a secret codicil signed by Gazprom and by government Press Minister Mikhail Lesin, which says if the agreement is broken, all parties are "freed of their obligation" to guarantee Gusinsky's physical safety. The text also implies that Gusinsky agreed not to make statements that would "discredit" state institutions.

Mr. Lesin yesterday admitted that he had signed the secret pact, but told Russian state TV he did so as a "private person," not as a state official.

"The state made a provocative proposal to Gusinsky: your freedom for your company," says Igor Dyakovsky, president of the Russian Union of Journalists. "This is a real illustration of the information policy of our government. The new doctrine means to introduce state control over the mass media."

President Vladimir Putin has declared that his rule would be a "dictatorship of law." But details emerging about the high-stakes political game for control of NTV point to more brass-knuckle methods.

"The use of the police forces to bring the media under state control is a throwback to the past," says Boris Altschuler, a human rights activist and member of the Moscow-Helsinki monitoring group. "It's the way of Lenin, not the way of democracy and law."

On Monday, Gusinsky revealed the existence of the bargain and reneged on it, saying it was made "under pressure, you could say at gunpoint." Almost immediately Russian deputy prosecutor Vasily Kolmogorov announced the police would launch a new investigation and Gusinsky - who has been in exile in Spain since July - will probably be called in "for questioning."

Former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, who heads an NTV advisory body and who launched press freedom in the twilight of the Soviet era, called the secret deal "glaring testimony of blunt blackmail on the part of the state" and demanded a meeting with Mr. Putin to get an explanation.

Alfred Koch, head of Gazprom's media business, says the company merely wants to recover some $473 million that was lent to Media-Most by Gazprom. He says Gusinsky has used his freedom to move assets abroad and try to find alternative solutions to his financial problems. Gazprom, Mr. Koch insists, is not interested in controlling the network on behalf of the Kremlin and might eventually sell Media-Most - estimated to be worth about $1.5 billion - to a third party, such as an American media group.