Russian journalists are demanding the Kremlin take urgent action after yet another member of the country's beleaguered independent press corps, Kommersant reporter Oleg Kashin, was brutally beaten outside his Moscow apartment Saturday morning.
While Russian journalists have faced a string of attacks, including a number of prominent murders in recent years, some analysts suggest that the attack on Mr. Kashin may represent more than just another case of an independent Russian journalist getting savaged in the line of work.
Many other recent signals, including a bizarre public battle leading up to the sacking of longtime Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov, suggest that a subterranean power struggle between Russia's political titans may be gathering momentum ahead of 2012 presidential elections. The Kremlin inner circle must soon choose whether to back incumbent President Dmitry Medvedev or his mentor, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, as the establishment candidate for presidential elections in 2012, and diverse interests appear to be lining up behind each.
Mr. Medvedev has hinted at the need for democratization and economic liberalization to bring Russia into the 21st century, while Mr. Putin – who says little on the subject – appears linked to forces who favor continuation of the authoritarian system of "managed democracy" and state-led economics that he built during his eight-year presidency that ended in 2008.
"The fight that's shaping up is between those who want to continue the old model in which Russia's economy is dominated by resource extraction, and those who want to move to a high-tech based information society," says Nikolai Petrov, an analyst with the Carnegie Center in Moscow. "A lot of political and economic interests are vested in the old model, but some groups are interested in real change – and they are pinning their hopes on Medvedev."
Medvedev vows (via Twitter): The criminals shall be punished
Kashin, an outspoken reporter and blogger, suffered serious head injuries, a broken leg, and a smashed hand after two men approached him near his home with an iron bar concealed in a bouquet of flowers. He remained in critical condition, in a coma, on Monday. A graphic CCTV video of the attack has become one of the most widely visited sites on Russia's still unfettered Internet.
Kommersant editor Mikhail Mikhailin told journalists Monday that the broken fingers send a clear message: "Apparently, those who did this do not like what he says and writes," he said.
More than 200 journalists have signed an online appeal to President Medvedev, asking him to take steps to end what some are calling a war on journalists.
"By demanding the protection of reporters, what we are talking about is not only our own trade," the appeal says. "One must also protect the rights of our readers. The rights of reporters to fulfill their obligation in a normal fashion and not have to fear for their lives [is the only guarantee] of the public's rights to speak and be heard."
Medvedev reacted to the Kashin assault by writing in his public Twitter account: "I have ordered the Prosecutor General’s Office and the Interior Ministry to take the journalist Kashin’s attempted murder case under special control. The criminals should be found and punished."
'Things are getting worse by the month'
But the chairman of Russia's Union of Journalists says that's not enough. "We've heard these declarations from our authorities before, and nothing changes," says Vsevolod Bogdanov. "Our colleagues are being killed and maimed. This is an attack on all of us, and the public at large. This is a crisis."
Some worry that Russia's tenuous press freedoms may be facing extinction. Though there has been a long string of unsolved murders and beatings of independent Russian journalists, analysts say the attack on Kashin suggests that pressure on the independent media may be ratcheting up. They point out that his newspaper, the liberal business daily Kommersant, is often critical but has never been considered to be in opposition to the Kremlin.
"Things are getting worse by the month," says Yulia Latynina, one of Russia's best-known investigative journalists. She says the assault was probably organized by a top official whose interests were negatively affected by Kashin's critical reporting, and their names are well known. "There are basically two possible culprits in this case, but nobody will name them. It's absolutely clear that they aren't going to be punished. Officials always side with officials."
Media tycoon says he's getting death threats
In another worrisome signal, maverick Russian billionaire Alexander Lebedev, who is part owner of the opposition newspaper Novaya Gazeta, said Sunday that he has been handed stark warnings from "shadowy forces," including from inside the FSB security service, to leave the country or face death.
Mr. Lebedev, who owns a string of newspapers in Russia and Britain, said that a raid by 50 armed police last week on a Moscow bank he owns was one of many such signals he has received. "They were saying: do not cross the line," he told the London Mail on Sunday newspaper, comparing their tactics to the Sicilian Mafia. "They did not arrest me because it was a demonstration. It is like the Cosa Nostra – they send you a rotten fish wrapped in some paper."
Lebedev owns Novaya Gazeta together with former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, who recently spoke out against the authoritarian system of power created by Mr. Putin, and warned that without radical democratic reforms, Russia faces possible revolution.
"The threats against Lebedev are meant to scare independent businesspeople" who provide funding for critical outlets, says Nadezhda Prusenkova, a spokesperson for Novaya Gazeta.
'They want to put society in an artificial coma'
In a terse and portent-filled editorial Monday, Novaya Gazeta argued that the assault on Kashin was no isolated incident, but rather part of a broader attempt to silence any social dissent on the eve of this Kremlin struggle.
"These events can only be understood as a mass mopping-up operation on the fields of information freedom and civic activism," the newspaper's editorial board wrote. "The goal is to intimidate everything that lives, breathes, and moves without [Kremlin] permission....
"This is the beginning of a ferocious campaign – one that has already turned bloody – launched by those who aim to maintain the status quo and strengthen their grip on society still further, because they are frightened by the hypothetical prospect of a Russia moving toward social maturity. They want to put society into an artificial coma [as Oleg Kashin is today], in order to block its ability to see, hear and make its own destiny."