Suppose police wearing ski masks and toting sub-machine guns were to raid CNN's Atlanta headquarters and snatch vice chairman Ted Turner, caging him in a common prison cell without a chance to call his lawyer or family. Now suppose the average American were convinced that Mr. Turner's arrest was arranged by rival media tycoon Rupert Murdoch.
That's possibly the nearest American parallel to Tuesday's arrest of press baron Vladimir Gusinsky, owner of Russia's largest independent media empire, whose criticism and tough news coverage have angered the Kremlin for years.
Analysts fear that, whatever truth may be in the theft charges against Mr. Gusinsky related to privatizing a state-owned TV company in St. Petersburg three years ago, his arrest could be the signal for a general crackdown on free expression.
Last month, police descended on the Moscow headquarters of Media-MOST, Gusinsky's main holding company. That raid sent up alarms among Russian journalists and human rights workers. When he attended the Moscow summit with Kremlin leader Vladimir Putin in early June, President Clinton made a point of joining a talk show on a Gusinsky-owned radio station and emphasizing his support for Russia's fragile press freedoms. The White House reiterated that concern after Gusinsky's arrest Tuesday.
"I read the persecution of Gusinsky as a trial balloon, an attempt to see if Russian society is ready for the return of authoritarian rule," says Vladimir Oyvin, a long-time human rights activist and member of the independent Moscow Human Rights Center. "The security forces are coming back into power after being out in the cold for a decade. They sense the public mood wants a return to the days of stern order and they are feeling their way."
Under Russian law, police have the right to hold Gusinsky for up to 10 days before formally charging him.
Almost everyone sees the hand of Boris Berezovsky, the super-rich Kremlin insider who has bragged that he helped "make" Mr. Putin president of Russia, behind the travails of his arch-enemy and rival Gusinsky.
"As usual, Berezovsky has managed to balance on the razor's edge and manipulate events his way," says Alexei Mukhin, director of the Spik Center, an independent political think tank in Moscow. "There are huge business interests at stake if Gusinsky's empire is broken up. The security forces will obtain their goal of silencing an irritating critic. And Berezovsky, as a loyal oligarch, will swallow some choice pieces of the pie."
Putin, currently traveling in Western Europe, has evinced surprisingly little interest in Gusinsky's case. After last month's raid on Media-MOST, he made no definitive comment at all. In a statement to the official news agency Itar-TASS yesterday, he said he would look into the matter when he returns to Moscow Saturday. He also said he did not know in advance of the plan to collar Gusinsky, a claim most analysts doubt.
"The arrest of such a prominent person as Gusinsky would definitely be cleared with the president," says Zhenya Shmezhkina, a spokesperson for the Glasnost Foundation, an independent media watchdog. "If it's true that Putin was unaware, it is a scary sign that he is not really in charge in the Kremlin."
In Russia's murky business world, virtually all the current top dogs rose to wealth and power through dubious dealings and manipulating the chaotic sell-off of former Soviet state property in the 1990s. Gusinsky, a former theater director who became wealthy largely thanks to his close links with powerful Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov, is no exception. In 1996 he threw the support of his media assets behind the reelection campaign of former President Boris Yeltsin, and was later rewarded by the Kremlin with a national broadcasting license for his NTV network, the right to set up his own satellite TV system, and hundreds of millions of dollars in easy credit from state banks and corporations.
Gusinsky's media empire became a magnet for many of Russia's top professionals, and consistently offered them the best conditions of work. The NTV network is Russia's only nationwide TV broadcaster not state-owned. "All things are relative, but the Media-MOST outlets produce by far the best news coverage and the widest range of commentary," says Ms. Shmezhkina. "Even when they were in alliance with the Kremlin, there was always tension."
But the honeymoon ended last year when Gusinsky decided to back the parliamentary and presidential aspirations of the Kremlin's main opponents, Mayor Luzhkov and former Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov. "We have been covering the war in Chechnya as objectively as possible, and we allowed Putin's challengers free access to our media," says Alexander Ryklin, chief political columnist for the Gusinsky-owned Itogi magazine. "Now the authorities are taking their revenge. They want us ... to stop being such a pain in the neck. The pressure is on."
Even Berezovsky seems to agree that Gusinsky's plight is largely due to his politics, and not his other alleged sins. "In the last few years there hasn't been a single Russian entrepreneur who has not broken the law in some way," Berezovsky told the Vedemosti newspaper yesterday.
"The law-enforcement agencies have a chance to settle accounts with anyone. My attitude toward this is extremely negative, but it is clear to everyone why this happened to Gusinsky," he said, adding that the Media-MOST chief was being swallowed up by the very machine he'd helped to create.
"Of course what happened ... also had to do with his political stance. You can't take money from the authorities and criticize them at the same time."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society