By Sophie Lambroschini and Floriana Fossato
The arrest yesterday of Media-MOST founder Vladimir Gusinsky is widely seen as a Kremlin attempt to silence independent media and intimidate journalists. But Floriana Fossato and Sophie Lambroschini report that gagging freedom of speech is not the only goal of the arrest. They argue that Gusinsky may be being targeted as the only oligarch to overtly oppose the Kremlin.
Moscow, 14 June 2000 (RFE/RL) -- One of the powerful Russian tycoons known as the oligarchs is under arrest for "gross fraud."
Media-MOST founder Vladimir Gusinsky was arrested yesterday evening when he voluntarily showed up alone -- without his lawyer -- at the Prosecutor-General's office to discuss other matters. There is no doubt that the arrest came as a surprise to Gusinsky, although in recent weeks the government has put pressure on Media-MOST. Tax police raided the company's offices in April and carted away boxes of documents.
Gusinsky has not yet been charged with a crime. Under Russian law, suspects may be detained up to 10 days without being charged.
But the prosecutor general says Gusinsky is suspected of having defrauded the state of some $10 million with the help of managers of Russian Video, a Saint Petersburg-based cinema company turned television network. In 1996, Gusinsky bought 70 percent of the company as part of his development of a regional television network. Two years later, prosecutors brought a criminal case against the management of Russian Video, without involving Gusinsky. The Moscow daily "Vremya Novostei" argues that this means the case is just a pretext to allow authorities to detain Gusinsky.
The arrest sends a powerful signal to several groups. According to Gusinsky's supporters, the arrest is part of a trend toward government muzzling of independent media and intimidate journalists. Independent television TV Tsentr has been having trouble renewing its broadcast license, several newspapers have been reprimanded for publishing interviews with Chechen leaders, and the media minister recently announced his intention to enforce a law requiring all print media to be licensed.
But silencing a free press does not appear to be the main goal of the arrest. Gusinsky's humiliating arrest and detention in Moscow's infamous Butyrskaya prison can also be taken as a signal to the oligarchs and security services that the Kremlin will move against those who do not come to terms with it.
According to Carnegie Endowment analyst Nikolai Petrov, all the oligarchs except Gusinsky have struck informal deals with the Kremlin. There has been no real press freedom in Russia, Petrov says, only competing political clans that controlled their own newspapers. Gusinsky is being targeted because he is the only media mogul who continues to overtly oppose the Kremlin.
"Before, the whole so-called freedom of the press was mainly linked to the existence inside the party of power of different clans that could each lean on its own media group. As soon as the struggle of those clans came to an end, as soon as one single group took the upper hand, and as soon as politics ceased to be public, right away, the possibility in principle of the existence of a media group or publications of relative independence, or not directly under the control of this group, turned out to be impossible."
Gusinsky's business interests, like those of other oligarchs, have profited from his close relationships with the Moscow city government and the central government.
Putin has frequently said he intends to destroy the oligarch system by submitting the tycoons to the same treatment as any small businessman caught committing petty crimes.
But if Putin wanted to show that he would treat all businessmen equally, targeting Gusinsky first raises doubts about his intentions. Frequently critical of the Kremlin, Media-MOST news organizations are a symbol of independence for Russia's journalists, and the holding's influence in the regions has been growing.
Boris Nemtsov, leader of the Union of Right Forces and deputy speaker of the Duma, put forth that view on a talk show devoted to Gusinsky's arrest last night on Media MOST's NTV television.
"Before the elections, Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin talked about the oligarchs having to be equally far away from political power. So, if what he did with Gusinsky is the technological implementation of this equal distance, then I think he just didn't start with the right oligarch."
Nemtsov mentioned other oligarchs that Putin could have dealt with first. Businessmen such as oilman Roman Abramovich and financial tycoon Aleksandr Mamut -- who are believed to be getting the upper hand in their fight with Kremlin insider and Duma deputy Boris Berezovsky for influence in the Kremlin -- represent the major danger.
Nemtsov said that Putin should dismiss Kremlin administration head Aleksandr Voloshin over Gusinsky's case. Powerful Voloshin, formerly a Berezovsky ally, is believed to have switched allegiance in favor of Abramovich and Mamut.
"Nevertheless, I don't think it is a struggle between the authorities and powerful media structures. In reality, it's a fight between one group against another enemy group."
Berezovsky says Gusinsky "became the victim of a machine that he set in motion himself" by hiring former KGB staffers who were bound to turn against him eventually. But he also condemned the arrest, saying that Russian laws are so contradictory that everyone who has done business in Russia in the past 10 years has violated some law.
According to Kim Iskyan, a political analyst with the brokerage firm MFK Renaissance, the offensive against Gusinsky is a signal to other oligarchs that from now on any moves not cleared with the Kremlin will not be tolerated. Iskyan, too, said that Gusinsky's arrest serves several purposes, in particular to make it clear that the Kremlin is serious about centralizing power.
"As far as the whole process of consolidating power is concerned -- the whole move to centralize power from the regions, centralizing power in the Kremlin -- this is another way of increasing government power."
Media-MOST's regional network, TNT, has profitable partnership agreements with private television companies in some 500 cities across Russia. Many Russian journalists told RFE/RL that they are concerned that regional powers will now try to deprive Media-MOST of some of this regional influence, in order to display loyalty to the Kremlin.