Prague, 15 June 2000 (RFE/RL) -- The arrest earlier this week (Tuesday) in Moscow of Russian media magnate Vladimir Gusinsky is the chief subject of comment today in the Western press. Analysts seem unsure whether Gusinksy's detention is part of a broad attack against Russia's independent media, an attempt to reduce the powers of the country's business barons -- known as oligarchs -- or both. They appear equally divided over the personal role played in Gusinsky's arrest by Russian President Vladimir Putin, who was on a official visit to Spain when it occurred and later said he had no previous knowledge of the police action.
Our selection of a representative sample of Western press comment on the Gusinsky affair begins with Britain's Financial Times. In an editorial, the paper attributes the crackdown on Gusinsky directly to Putin who, it says, is seeking "to clip the wings [that is, reduce the powers] of his country's formidable business barons." But, it says, Gusinsky's arrest "raises a number of questions."
One of those questions, the editorial suggests, has to do with the fact that Gusinsky is, "neither one of the most powerful nor one of the most notorious of [Russia's oligarchs]. His real claim to fame," it says, "is that his Media-MOST group owns the television station NTV and 'Segodnya' newspaper among others -- outspoken critics of Mr. Putin's government. In particular, they have questioned the conduct of the war in Chechnya [and thereby] been helping [to] ensure that the press acts as a critic of government -- an essential element in Russia's slow progress towards democracy."
Putin, the paper believes, "does not appear to be a believer in glasnost, the openness introduced by [Soviet leader] Mikhail Gorbachev into the Russian media. More than any other reform, that probably guaranteed the end of Communist rule and the Soviet Union." But by definition, the paper says, "glasnost was inimical to the old KGB security service -- Mr. Putin's secretive former employer." The editorial concludes: "[Putin says] he knew nothing of Mr. Gusinsky's arrest. He should have [known], particularly in view of the widespread protests that followed. An unfettered press is an essential part of a market economy. He has a lot to learn."
WALL STREET JOURNAL EUROPE:
For the Wall Street Journal Europe, Gusinsky's arrest was -- in its words -- "either the first salvo in a Kremlin war against [the] oligarchs or a return to the Soviet-era practice of taking political prisoners. It was either carried out with the knowledge of the Russian president, or it was done behind his back while he was on a foreign trip. However you [view] it, it doesn't look good."
The paper's editorial goes on: "The allegations against Mr. Gusinsky are unclear. A statement said he is accused of embezzling $10 million from the state, though no details were given. Even taking the explanation of embezzlement at face value, one is left with the question of just what is the Kremlin's agenda."
But, the editorial says, if Putin "really wants to tackle corruption [among the oligarchs and others], he will have to overhaul the Russian legal system [and] reduce the bureaucracy and regulation that give rise to so much graft. Since most successful or powerful people in Russia have something to hide," it concludes, "it is not hard for the Kremlin to wield the 'law' as a political weapon to badger its enemies. But that's not cracking down on corruption -- that's just cracking down."
WALL STREET JOURNAL EUROPE:
Also in the Wall Street Journal Europe today, a commentary by Russian analyst Alexei Bayer says: "Putin will no doubt attempt to portray [Gusinsky's] arrest as part of his promise to curb the power of the country's [oligarchs]. Don't believe it," the commentator cautions. "Putin himself is the oligarchs' creature. Along with federal government officials, these new tycoons are at the top of a vast pyramid that controls Russia."
Bayer argues that what bothered Putin most about Gusinsky was that Media-MOST, in the commentator's phrase, "refused to take part in the orgy of sycophancy for [the new president] and his policy initiatives that has been the hallmark of the Russian media." He adds: "By stifling this imperfect voice of dissent, Mr. Putin has put the last piece in the Russian puzzle. For all the outward changes, Russia today bears a remarkable resemblance to the Soviet Union during the period of stagnation under Communist Party Secretary Leonid Brezhnev. [The] implications for civil liberties in Russia of Mr. Gusinsky's arrest are scary."
NEW YORK TIMES:
The New York Times writes in its editorial on Gusinsky: "While [Mr.] Putin is traveling through Europe this week extolling the virtues of Russian democracy, his colleagues in the Kremlin have been acting like Stalinists. [Gusinksy's] arrest and detention [is] an assault against the principle of a free press."
The paper goes on: "There is a stench of political retaliation about this case. [Media-MOST's] coverage of the war in Chechnya has been aggressive and skeptical, and [it has] not been hesitant to investigate government corruption and other misconduct. Last month, heavily armed federal agents raided the Media-MOST office in Moscow, the first signal that the Kremlin might be trying to intimidate Mr. Gusinsky."
The editorial notes that "Putin [at first] seemed surprised by the arrest, calling it 'a dubious present' when he arrived in Madrid on Tuesday. That," it says, "offers little comfort to anyone concerned about Russia's fragile freedoms." The paper sums up: "If the arrest was meant to embarrass Mr. Putin while he is visiting Western Europe, it is disturbing evidence of palace intrigue and political instability in the Kremlin. If Mr. Putin received advance notification about the arrest and failed to order the use of less draconian tactics, he has done a disservice to the press freedoms he says he supports."
In a commentary for Germany's Sueddeutsche Zeitung, Tomas Avenarius agrees with The New York Times that "Gusinsky's arrest does not bode well for free speech in Russia." He writes from Moscow: "Gusinsky is suspected of embezzling public funds. Perhaps he did," he says. "There is no shortage of criminal businessmen in Russia, and media moguls are businessmen, too."
But, Avenarius goes on, "there seems to be solid evidence suggesting that this is less a case of laws having been broken than an instance of the Kremlin disregarding the constitution. After all," he says, "the constitution guarantees freedom of the press. The authorities' actions simply feed the suspicion that Russia's newfound freedom of speech could soon be a thing of the past."
As to the question of how much Putin knew or didn't know in advance about Gusinsky's arrrest, the commentator says there are only two choices: "If he didn't know," he writes, "then his subordinates are playing cat-and-mouse games with him. Putin would then be seen as a weak president." On the other hand, the commentator says, "if [Putin] was well aware of what was going on, then he has lied to the public. Both options shed a rather unflattering light on the Kremlin and its new occupant."
The Norwegian daily Aftenposten sees Gusinsky's arrest as being in what it calls "the best Stalinist tradition." The paper says it "puts to a severe test what little respect Russia says it has for laws and for freedom of speech." Unfortunately, its editorial adds, "Russia still lacks a middle class sufficiently independent to support the idea of a free press."
The paper's editorial also says: "The affair raises the question whether Putin and his former colleagues in [Russia's] secret services are seeking to secure their power by using Soviet-era methods to intimidate the country's political opposition into submission." That makes it necessary, it adds, for "the West to tell Putin clearly that its future cooperation with Russia will be contingent upon its respect for democratic practices, including freedom of speech."
Aftenposten sums up: "The way Putin now handles the Gusinsky affair will show where he stands on these issues. It will tell us whether Russia's leadership is tolerant of opposing voices and diverging opinions, or whether Russia remains basically a one-party state."
A news analysis in Britain's Guardian daily by Ian Traynor suggests that Putin's trip to Western Europe has been -- in the analyst's word -- "hijacked" by the domestic and international furor over Gusinsky's arrest. Writing from Moscow, Traynor notes that Putin last night denied any previous knowledge of the case. But the analyst characterizes as "lame" Putin's remark that he had tried to contact Russian prosecutor general Vladimir Ustinov about the case, but with no success.
Traynor calls that remark "a change in tack [for Putin]. Earlier in the day," he says, [the president] had implied that Mr. Gusinsky was liable for hundreds of millions of dollars of credits being underwritten by the state gas monopoly. On the surface," he notes, "those comments had nothing to do with the prosecutor general's investigation into alleged embezzlement by Mr. Gusinsky of $10 million."
Traynor also raises the question of whether, in his words, "the president was the victim of a backroom plot by shadowy figures determined to call the shots in the young Putin administration, or the tacit accomplice in a maneuver to muzzle his critics and restore some of the repression of the Soviet era." But the commentator adds that Putin's public protestation he had been unaware of Gusinsky's impending arrest -- whether true or not -- has not done much good for his image as a strong, efficient leader.
In another British news analysis -- this one in the Times -- Giles Whittell and Giles Tremlett write that a close associate of Gusinsky's -- Igor Maleshenko, Media-MOST's vice chairman -- yesterday ridiculed Putin's claim that he had been unable to contact Russia' prosecutor general. Malashenko, they note, said in Madrid: "Either Mr. Putin is wrong, or he is simply not in control of the situation at home."
The two analysts go on to characterize Gusinsky's arrest as "Putin's first big political error." They say further: "How much [Putin really] knew before the arrest will be a key question in the coming days, as the Kremlin tries to limit the damage from what one of its allies called yesterday 'a flagrant political mistake.'" But so far, they add, "neither Mr. Putin's staff, nor the prosecutor general's office -- which ordered the arrest -- has given any indication of backing down, despite signs of a [backlash in the State Duma]."
(Anthony Georgieff in Copenhagen contributed to this report.)