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.
"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.
"The press war that's going on can't be treated as a simple struggle of journalists for freedom. It must be treated more as the sound effects as our mighty oligarchs contend for power," says Andrei Piontkovsky, director of the liberal Center for Strategic Studies in Moscow.
"But even these volleys of contradictory news are better than the monolithic information monopoly of Soviet times," he adds. "Though there is real danger in this situation, no one faction is in a position today to grab total control of the media."
Editors say the appeal to Yeltsin to intervene on their behalf - which sounds naive to Western ears - is justified by his record. "Whatever else you can say about him, during the eight years of his presidency Yeltsin has guaranteed independence of the media and freedom of expression in Russia," says Mikhail Berger, editor in chief of the daily Segodnya, a paper owned by Gusinsky.
If Yeltsin grants the editors' request for an urgent meeting, he may be forced to choose decisively between his faded democratic reputation and several of his closest aides - possibly including his own daughter.
"Many members of Yeltsin's inner circle have a lot to lose if power changes hands next year and someone like Luzhkov becomes president," says Mr. Piontkovsky. "That explains why they may be ready to risk everything."
Swiss police say they are investigating Pavel Borodin, the head of the Kremlin's property department, which controls assets worth an estimated $600 billion, and 22 other top officials on suspicion of money laundering.
Earlier this year an arrest warrant was even issued for Berezovsky, on charges of embezzlement and money laundering. But when President Yeltsin fired the left-leaning government of Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov in May the case was dropped abruptly.
Berezovsky has publicly bragged of his friendship with Yeltsin's daughter, Tatiana. Though he denies being a financial benefactor to the president's family, there seems little doubt about his strong influence within the Kremlin's walls.
More than power at stake
Critics are warning that these top officials, fearing for their positions, their freedom, and possibly their lives in any power shift, may be trying to stack the political deck so that they can hand pick a presidential successor. Accomplishing this would require tight control of the press.
The model for this is the1996 presidential elections, when Yeltsin went from single-digit popularity to victory over a strong Communist contender, thanks largely to blanket support from Russia's mass media.
"There may be some feeling in the Kremlin that this feat can be repeated next year, if only the press can be brought into line," says Ilya Bulavinov, head of the political department at Kommersant, the liberal daily recently acquired by Berezovsky.
"But there is no big Communist threat this time, so the media aren't likely to unite - unless they close all the papers that don't support the Kremlin's candidate," he says.
"Unfortunately, that could be a possibility."
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society