Freedom in the New Russia may have a price, and it can be a high one if you dare to criticize the Kremlin. Andrei Babitsky, a correspondent of the US-funded Radio Liberty discovered that earlier this year after being seized by Russian security police in Chechnya. He disappeared for weeks, after being "traded" to a mysterious group of armed men by his captors.
Mr. Babitsky, presently under house arrest in Moscow, learned the hard way that the Russian government is often more concerned with a citizen's obedience than his constitutional rights.
Now, Vladimir Gusinsky, owner of Russia's largest independent media empire, says the Kremlin has dealt him exactly the same lesson. Arrested and held in Moscow's Butrskaya prison last June on an accusation of fraud, Mr. Gusinsky was exonerated and allowed to leave the country after promising to sell Media-Most, which includes several newspapers, a radio station, and Russia's only nonstate television network NTV, to the state-owned natural-gas giant Gazprom.
According to Segodnya, a newspaper owned by Media-Most, the deal contained a secret codicil signed by Gazprom and by government Press Minister Mikhail Lesin, which says if the agreement is broken, all parties are "freed of their obligation" to guarantee Gusinsky's physical safety. The text also implies that Gusinsky agreed not to make statements that would "discredit" state institutions.
Mr. Lesin yesterday admitted that he had signed the secret pact, but told Russian state TV he did so as a "private person," not as a state official.
"The state made a provocative proposal to Gusinsky: your freedom for your company," says Igor Dyakovsky, president of the Russian Union of Journalists. "This is a real illustration of the information policy of our government. The new doctrine means to introduce state control over the mass media."
President Vladimir Putin has declared that his rule would be a "dictatorship of law." But details emerging about the high-stakes political game for control of NTV point to more brass-knuckle methods.
"The use of the police forces to bring the media under state control is a throwback to the past," says Boris Altschuler, a human rights activist and member of the Moscow-Helsinki monitoring group. "It's the way of Lenin, not the way of democracy and law."
On Monday, Gusinsky revealed the existence of the bargain and reneged on it, saying it was made "under pressure, you could say at gunpoint." Almost immediately Russian deputy prosecutor Vasily Kolmogorov announced the police would launch a new investigation and Gusinsky - who has been in exile in Spain since July - will probably be called in "for questioning."
Former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, who heads an NTV advisory body and who launched press freedom in the twilight of the Soviet era, called the secret deal "glaring testimony of blunt blackmail on the part of the state" and demanded a meeting with Mr. Putin to get an explanation.
Alfred Koch, head of Gazprom's media business, says the company merely wants to recover some $473 million that was lent to Media-Most by Gazprom. He says Gusinsky has used his freedom to move assets abroad and try to find alternative solutions to his financial problems. Gazprom, Mr. Koch insists, is not interested in controlling the network on behalf of the Kremlin and might eventually sell Media-Most - estimated to be worth about $1.5 billion - to a third party, such as an American media group.
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.
"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