Russia's glasnost questioned
Former President Mikhail Gorbachev is passionately defending freedom of the press.
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That begs the question of why Gusinsky, owner of one of Russia's hottest media properties, hasn't been able to find an investor to bail him out of what is, in effect, a relatively small debt in the world of big media.Skip to next paragraph
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"No Russian company will help Gusinsky. They all know what kind of trouble will fall on them from above if they get involved," says Vladimir Pribiulovsky, director of Panorama, an independent Moscow-based political consultancy. "Plenty of foreign companies could easily come up with the money to settle Media-Most's debt. But in the present political situation it would not be profitable. Maybe someone like George Soros would give the money, just as an investment in Russia's free press."
In a recent interview on CNN, Putin said this case - and that of Boris Berezovsky, who was ordered to give up his 49 percent stake in ORT public television - "has nothing to do with attempts to strangle freedom of speech," and that "nobody is going to shut them down."
But many see the secret deal as part of a campaign by the Kremlin to curb the wide-open and often exuberant media culture fathered by Mr. Gorbachev in the heady days of perestroika and glasnost, the policies that peacefully ended Communism in Russia.
One of those is Gorbachev himself, who has passionately thrown himself into the defense of Media-Most's independence. "Mikhail Sergeyevich [Gorbachev] isn't doing this for Gusinsky or any narrow business interest," says Pavel Palaschenko, Gorbachev's long-time personal secretary and translator. "He is very worried about the fate of glasnost, which he began in this country. He fears this situation is a major threat to press freedom, and that's why he's become involved."
Analysts say the Kremlin is not looking to restore Soviet-era control and censorship, but rather to set limits on access to the press and boundaries for criticism. Making sure that state-owned companies, like Gazprom, hold controlling stakes in major media is one way to enforce guidelines from backstage. "I don't think the Kremlin wants to shut down Media-Most, merely to 'regulate' it," says Andrei Zakharov, of the independent Foundation for the Development of Parliamentarianism in Russia. "With Putin, it is pragmatism that rules. That means flexibility, but pragmatism is just not compatible with moral principles. The pragmatic thing was to offer Gusinsky freedom for his shares."
Last week the Kremlin Security Council released a new "information doctrine" that experts say codifies precisely this approach. "The thrust of the new doctrine is 'ideological security,' which implies control over all information that reaches the population," says Andrei Piontkovsky, director of the independent Center for Strategic Studies in Moscow. "The Kremlin will be the arbiter of which information is dangerous and which is safe."
Russian tycoons like Vladimir Gusinsky and Boris Berezovsky built their empires in the wild 1990s, often through shady business methods and taking advantage of state largesse.
"We should not believe that Gusinsky is just a fighter for free speech," says Sergei Mikhailov, of the Political Consulting Association at the Russian Public Politics Center. "Media-MOST is an empire, headed by an oligarch."
Nevertheless, Media-Most has become a home for Russia's best professional journalists, some of whom are now threatening to resign. "If control over NTV would be established in this manner, I will not work for one minute with these racketeers and looters," says Yevgeny Kiselyov, one of Russia's best-known TV anchormen.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society