A police raid on a media conglomerate just days after Vladimir Putin was sworn in is bolstering the view that Russia's new president, a former KGB agent and head of the agency's domestic successor, intends to take a tough line with critics.
Some analysts say the raid may be simply the latest volley in a feud among the "oligarchs," the powerful multibillionaires who control most of the country's key industries and media outlets. Either way, the incident is raising concerns over the future of press freedom in Russia.
Mr. Putin's "hands on" style was further evident in a decree on Saturday, splitting Russia into seven vast zones, each under the control of a presidential envoy. It was not immediately clear how the decree would affect the governors of Russia's 89 regions and republics.
On Thursday, security police wearing ski masks and wielding submachine guns swooped down on the Moscow headquarters of Media-MOST, Russia's leading independent news organization. They herded employees into a cafeteria, searched offices, and hauled away documents, videotapes, and electronic equipment.
"This assault did not come out of thin air, it is part of a deliberate pattern of actions," says Alexei Simonov, chairman of the Glasnost Foundation, a leading human rights monitoring group. "There have been many warnings that the new president intends to force the press to follow his line, and use all means to punish those who refuse."
The move triggered a wave of condemnation across the political spectrum. "The armed raid was an anti-Constitutional, arbitrary act by the government conducted with the goal of intimidating the independent mass media," said a statement issued by Russia's Union of Journalists and signed by the editors of several - but not all - leading newspapers. "This is a real attempt to introduce censorship by [men in] ski masks." A public demonstration is expected later this week.
Some analysts say Russia's decade of tenuous press freedoms is about to be snuffed out by a president in a hurry to enact sweeping changes and unwilling to entertain public criticism or debate. If so, Media-MOST would be a tempting target. The vast conglomerate runs a string of news outlets that have been critical of Kremlin corruption, the war in Chechnya, and electoral irregularities. Its outlets include the NTV television network, the daily newspaper Segodnya, radio station Ekho Moskvi, and weekly newsmagazine Itogi.
Barely a week before the raid, the Kommersant newspaper published what it said was a Kremlin "working paper" that called for expanding the role of Russia's security services to intervene against opposition media and political groups. According to Kommersant, the document said: "The president needs a structure in his administration that can not only forecast the political situation but also clearly control the political and social processes in Russia."
"Whatever Putin's programs for [the] economy and politics, we are absolutely sure he does not intend to tolerate dissent in society," says Iosif Dzyaloshinsky, director of the Institute of Humane Communication, an independent media-watchdog group.
Authorities said the raid was a strike against an "illegal security service" allegedly maintained by the MOST organization, which is owned by tycoon Vladimir Gusinsky. To back up the charge, a spokesman for the Federal Security Service (FSB), the domestic successor to the KGB, made a bizarre appearance on state-backed television Saturday. He presented the news anchor with what he claimed were secret reports gathered by Mr. Gusinsky's people on key journalists and political figures. The anchor then proceeded to read excerpts from the reports.
Analysts say it would not be surprising if Media-MOST maintained a corporate-intelligence service. The bare-knuckled media wars of recent years between rival Russian oligarchs have been fuelled by sensational revelations apparently gathered by eavesdropping and other surreptitious means.
One of the top players has been Gusinsky's archenemy, oil and media tycoon Boris Berezovsky, whose news outlets hailed last week's raid as a blow for law and order.
"Most of the oligarchs work in dirty ways, and it is a huge problem," says Mr. Simonov. "But these references to an investigation do not begin to explain this event. The attack on MOST was clearly politically motivated."
The Kremlin has remained largely silent on the raid. On Friday, the presidential press office issued a bland statement that reaffirmed the principle of press freedom but added, "as far as investigations of criminal cases are concerned, everyone is equal before the law, no matter what business they are in."
But government critics note that there have been several strange occurrences involving the press on Putin's watch. In January, Andrei Babitsky, a Russian reporter for US-funded Radio Liberty, was held against his will by Russian security forces. In his only comment on the affair, Putin referred to Mr. Babitsky, who covered the Chechen war from behind rebel lines, as "a traitor."
In recent weeks, Russia's press ministry has issued warnings to at least two newspapers for printing interviews with Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov.
"The security forces have become much more influential in Russia under Putin, and they are behind these new pressures on the press," says Viktor Kuvaldin, an analyst with the Gorbachev Foundation, a think-tank run by former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. "The free press stands in their way, and MOST is the premier symbol of independent media in Russia."
Dimitry Pinsker, chief political analyst at Itogi magazine, says the Putin era is coming into focus as the age of KGB revival. "[Former President Boris] Yeltsin wasn't perfect, but he had one taboo: He never touched the press, no matter what it wrote about him," Mr. Pinsker says. "The people who now surround Putin have no such taboo. They are actively exploring the limits of their power."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society