Washington, 12 May 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Newly inaugurated Russian President Vladimir Putin appears to have embarked on a strategy long favored by authoritarian leaders: the selective prosecution of his opponents for actual legal violations.
That chilling conclusion, only four days into Putin's term, is suggested by a police raid yesterday on a major Russian media group that has long been critical of Kremlin policy in general and of Putin's specific approach to a variety of issues.
Early Thursday morning, armed tax police searched the headquarters of the Media-MOST group, a media giant lead by Vladimir Gusinsky. This group controls NTV television, Ekho Moskvy radio, the daily "Segodnya" and the weekly magzine "Itogi."
The Federal Security Service said that the raid was simply intended to find evidence of tax irregularities, what an FSB spokesman insisted was "a regular financial offense."
And during the course of the day, FSB officials reported finding not only the evidence they said they were looking for concerning tax violations but indications of other criminal activity, including the use of unauthorized eavesdropping devices.
But Gusinsky and his supporters, who have often been the objects of critical official attention for their critical coverage of the government, quite naturally viewed this police action in a very different way.
Gusinsky suggested that "it is obvious that what is happening is a factor of political pressure." And another MOST leader, Igor Malashenko, said that this action "contradicts the norms of Russia's constitution and is against freedom of speech."
Because of the nature of the Russian political and economic system over the last decade, both the FSB and Gusinsky are in some sense right.
Given confusion over tax policies and the underlying corruption of Russian society, virtually no firm in that country has been able or willing to always conduct its affairs in full compliance with the law.
And consequently, the authorities are likely to be able to find evidence justifying prosecution almost anywhere they choose to look.
But it is precisely because the authorities have the possibility to pick and choose whom they will prosecute that Gusinsky and the Media-MOST team have the better part of the argument.
They properly point out that they have been singled out from among all the other potential targets of investigation. And they plausibly suggest that the government has done so not out of a concern for law enforcement but rather to build its power.
Even a cursory examination of the Russian media scene suggests that Gusinsky's operation was no more "illegal" than that of other media barons, but his group does have one characteristic the others don't: it has been very critical of the Kremlin.
Now, the Thursday raid suggests, the Kremlin has decided to respond -- and to do so by using the respectable provisions of the law itself rather than brute force to move against freedom of the press and those who seek to defend it.
Such a strategy has three major advantages for a leader like Putin who has made it clear that he wants to ensure his control.
First, it can be used to silence or break those who oppose his regime, either by tying them up in legal cases or financially ruining them.
Second, actions of this type against such groups intimidate others who might be thinking about opposing him. The latter can see what the costs are of doing so and often will decide to remain silent or otherwise go along.
And third, because such actions are cloaked in mantle of legality, they often escape any criticism from democratic governments. Such regimes can and do say to themselves that in such cases, the police are only enforcing the law.
But for all three of these reasons, this "legal" threat to media freedom and to other forms of freedom which rely on it may be even more insidious and threatening than the direct application of force would have been.
For that reason, Thursday's raid on Media-MOST may prove to be an even more significant turning point in Russia's political development than last Sunday's inauguration of Vladimir Putin as president.