THE Russian government has warned two newspapers, including the country's leading independent journal, for violating the press law and threatened them with closure.Vitaly Tretiakov, the editor of Nezavisimaya Gazeta (Independent Newspaper) sees this as a clear effort by the Russian government of Boris Yeltsin to curb the freedom of the press. Within two months of the failed Communist coup and the ensuing political revolution, the new authorities are showing signs of following in the footsteps of the old, he charges. "The democrats very quickly start to manifest the same intolerance of any kind of criticism as their predecessors the Communists did," he told the Monitor yesterday. "The democrats loved us when we criticized the Communists, but they can't stand it when we go after them." The controversy involves not only press freedom but the growing tension between the Russian republic and its neighbor, the Ukraine. Nezavisimaya and the liberal weekly Moscow News are being warned for printing articles reporting discussions within the Russian government over the possibility of nuclear conflict between the two republics. In its Oct. 24 report, Nezavisimaya ran an interview with Ukrainian Vice Premier Konstantin Masik, who reported the replies of both Mr. Yeltsin and Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev to this discussion. Mr. Masik said that Gorbachev dismissed the threat as groundless but that "Yeltsin said he did discuss this possibility with the military, but there is no military capability for it." The day following the publication of the article, Nezavisimaya received a call from the Russian Ministry of Press and Mass Media telling them the ministry was going to issue an official warning, though not explaining for what. The following day, the paper Kuranty published the text of the warning (which also mentions Moscow News) stating that the publication of this article violates Article 5 of the Soviet Law on Press which prohibits propagandizing war and inter-ethnic conflict. According to that law, Mr. Tretiakov wrote in a front page editorial on Oct. 29, the paper can be shut down if it receives a second warning. The charges against the paper were repeated several times over the next days on television news programs, including those by the minister, Mikhail Poltaranin, a former liberal journalist. Tretiakov dismisses the accusations as "absurd" and without any legal basis. The paper cannot be held responsible for the words of a Ukrainian official, he says. "There is nothing special or horrible" about the warning, insists Andrei Rylsky, the minister's aide for external relations. He accuses Tretiakov of being wrong when he says the paper can be closed down under the law. "On the contrary, the paper is protected by the ministry," he says. But an official of the ministry's legal department, who declined to reveal his name, says that "the paper can be closed after receiving a second warning." Although Mr. Poltaranin publicly issued the warning, the official document "was prepared but it wasn't signed," he explained. "It is the old trick of passing around a warning in order to intimidate somebody," responds Tretiakov, who founded Nezavisimaya earlier this year. The paper has quickly won a reputation as the most innovative paper in the country. It has set itself apart by not holding back from publishing articles critical of the Yeltsin government and the democratic reform movement and by regularly scooping other papers and publishing investigative articles. Tretiakov offers two explanations for the move against his paper. "Either the Russian democrats are fed up with Nezavisimaya and are looking for a pretext to pacify it, or the more dangerous conclusion, we hit the bull's-eye [with our report] ... and they are upset that it was made public. The fury, the absurdity, and the illogical way they are charging us with these crimes unfortunately indicates the second conclusion."