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Western Press Review: What Does Gusinsky's Arrest Say About Putin?

By Susan Caskie

Prague. 16 June 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Western press commentary continues to probe the significance of the arrest this week of Russian media tycoon Vladimir Gusinsky. Commentators seek to understand the motives of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Germany's decision to phase out the use of nuclear energy also draws comment, and there is a call to support Montenegro against Serbia.


Jacques Schuster, writing in the German newspaper Die Welt, says: "Putin is a riddle contained in a secret embedded in a mystery." He cites a Russian analyst posing the question on everyone's mind in the wake of the Gusinsky arrest: "What should we call this president? Is he a liberal, an imperialist, a dictator or a democrat?"

Schuster has not yet decided. In his words, "Who Putin is, is still unclear despite the numerous human rights violations in Chechnya and the arrest of an independent publisher. He says Putin's actions in the next weeks and months will show what course the president has planned for Russia.


The Washington Post's David Hoffman is far from uncertain about Putin. In his words: "The trend is clear: The vozhd is back, or at least wants to be. Vozhd, " he explains, "is a Russian word that means a leader or strongman, and Putin's actions indicate that he intends to assert his power as far and deeply as possible."

Hoffman continues his analysis: "The military offensive in separatist Chechnya, the detention of Radio Liberty journalist Andrei Babitsky, the appointment of former KGB spies and generals to oversee elected governors, and now the campaign against Gusinsky -- all point to a Kremlin striving to restore a single, authoritarian power center. Gusinsky, [analysts] said, got in the way."

Putin, who was in Spain at the time of the arrest this week, said he did not know ahead of time that Gusinsky would be arrested. Hoffman says analysts tell him that is highly unlikely.

According to their scenario, Gusinsky has been targeted because he and his media outlets supported Putin's opponents in the presidential campaign. In Hoffman's words: "The roots of the conflict lay in last year's political upheaval in Russia, when powerful Kremlin aides and financiers were casting about for a successor to President Boris Yeltsin. They felt threatened by two popular politicians: Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov and former prime minister Yevgeny Primakov, who had formed a political movement to challenge for the presidency. Gusinsky was close to their coalition."

The Kremlin's inner circle, the analysis goes on to say, organized a smear camp against Luzhkov and Primakov and "all but destroyed" their political standing. Those same Kremlin insiders, Hoffman says, were also key players in the selection and dramatic rise of Putin as Yeltsin's successor.

Hoffman quotes a Russian lobbyist: "Gusinsky backed the wrong horse. But in Russia there is no second place. If you lose, you lose."


Britain's Economist weekly wonders whether that scenario tells the whole story. It poses the question, "Will other influential tycoons also come under threat?"

The magazine notes that Putin declared before his election that he would target the powerful business leaders known as the oligarchs. "Mr. Gusinsky's media empire," it says, "would be a logical place to start. He built it thanks to political connections, backed the wrong side, and now should pay the penalty."

"Who, or what, will be next?" the Economist asks. "If the main target is out-of-favor oligarchs, rather than civil liberties as such, a leading candidate would be Yuri Luzhkov, the mayor of Moscow. He was a chum of Mr. Gusinsky's, and once the strongest challenger to the Kremlin's grip on power and money in Russia. The state-run media gave him a pounding before the general election last December, alleging murder, corruption, fraud, links to Scientology and so on."

The magazine speculates: "Another possible target is Anatoly Chubais, who coordinated the tycoons' support for Mr. Gusinsky this week."

But the main question, according to the Economist, is whether Putin will go after the man it calls "Russia's top oligarch" -- Boris Berezovsky. In the magazine's words: "[Berezovsky] has clearly played an influential role so far in Mr. Putin's presidency: plenty of his friends got top jobs in both government and the presidential administration. Some believe Mr. Berezovsky's power is now so absolute that any sign of an attack on it is just face-saving camouflage for his puppet-president."

Even if Putin intended to go after other oligarchs, the magazine adds, he may have underestimated the opposition to Gusinsky's arrest. It notes: "Even oligarchs who had been successfully keeping their heads down signed the protest letter."

"The main result of the arrest," the Economist says, "is to face Mr. Putin with decisions that will shape his presidency. If he endorses his prosecutor's move or even fails to condemn it, he will need to deal with serious opposition for the first time since becoming president. If he denounces the arrest, he keeps his shaky democratic credentials but raises questions about his grip on government."


Sueddeutsche Zeitung commentator Daniel Broessler notes that former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev believes Putin's claims not to have known ahead of time that Gusinsky would be arrested. In Broessler's words: "Those in Gusinsky's Media-MOST concern consider it impossible that Putin is really as clueless as he claims." He says they believe that no prosecutor general would be crazy enough to arrest such a leading figure without consultations at the very top. And they see the arrest as part of a grand plan by Putin to hijack democracy.

"Is there such a plan?" asks Broessler. "Moscow is sprouting widely varying theories. Putin wants to cut off all critical media, say some. Putin's own credibility as a democrat is being threatened [by other Russian players], speculate others."

The commentator notes that Russian media interpret either option as bad news for Putin. If he really knew nothing, then he is a weak president. But if he knew and approved of the arrest, that makes him a persecutor of political dissent.


Turning to Germany's agreement between the government and the nuclear industry yesterday to decommission all the country's nuclear power stations over 32 years, Norway's newspaper Aftenposten is approving. "It is important to note," the paper says in an editorial today, "that despite the high level of safety of the German nuclear power plants, no one can claim that they are totally secure." It notes that the nuclear power industry agreed to abide by a political decision, and it calls that agreement a victory for democracy. In the paper's words: "The voters have elected a government where the Greens also participate. The political majority rejects nuclear power production. This is democracy in action."


Britain's Financial Times, however, disapproves of the German decision. "The deal," it says, "is bad for the industry and bad for the rest of the world."

The FT says this: "The anti-nuclear lobby will now focus its attention on other governments. Power consumers are in danger of being robbed of a vital alternative to fossil fuels. Properly built and well-run nuclear power plants are a cheap and safe source of energy. In the West, only a handful of people have died in nuclear accidents, in contrast to the many who are killed each year mining fossil fuels."

The newspaper concedes that nuclear waste disposal must be better managed. But it says that after the Chornobyl nuclear disaster exposed the industry to scrutiny, the industry benefited from the attention and improved safety.

Still, "the nuclear industry is often its own worst enemy," the Financial Times says, "particularly in handling public opinion. It has appeared secretive and defensive. It has failed to sell the environmental benefits of nuclear power such as its contribution to cutting greenhouse gas emissions."

The editorial concludes: "Governments share the responsibility. They are giving too much ground to a well-organized single-issue lobby. Their citizens -- in Germany as elsewhere -- could come to regret the loss of such a valuable energy source. "


The Wall Street Journal Europe carries a commentary calling for Western support for the Yugoslav republic of Montenegro. Gareth Evans, former Australian foreign minister and now president of the Brussels-based International Crisis Group, warns that, in his words, "the status quo continues in Montenegro, and that means that the fifth war of the breakup of Yugoslavia is closer than most people think."

Recent local elections in Montenegro ended without a clear majority for either the pro-independence or pro-Yugoslav faction. The predominance of either side, Evans argues, would have been highly destabilizing and could have precipitated a war.

Evans admits that Montenegrin President Milo Djukanovic is not a perfect democrat, but he argues that the Montenegrin leader's overthrow would be a disaster not just for Montenegro, but for Serbia and Kosovo as well. In his words: "Montenegro is the international community's chance to show that it has actually learned something from the horrors of the last 10 years. But mere words won't prevent war. We have to give Mr. Djukanovic economic and political support, and, hardest but most important, a security commitment that really means something."

Djukanovic should agree not to press ahead with calls for independence. "But he can only do that," Evans says, "if he can credibly claim that Montenegro is not being weakened by its present non-sovereign status. Economically, that means international donors must follow through on the [Balkan] Stability Pact pledges given in March -- and no more local headlines saying 'They don't want us independent, but won't give us any money until we are.'"

But it is unequivocal military support that Montenegro needs more than economic support, Evans argues. He says this: "The NATO allies need to make it clear beyond doubt to [Yugoslav President Slobodan] Milosevic that any attempt to overthrow the Montenegrin government by force will be met with a swift military response that would include the targeting of the Yugoslav command and control system."

"Leadership on this issue," Evans concludes, "will probably come down to the U.S. If the Clinton administration shoulders the responsibility of organizing an effective deterrent strategy, there is every prospect that the others will put aside their doubts and share the burdens of alliance solidarity. Such leadership may be a tall order in an election year, but the price of failure will be high: more killing, more destruction, and renewed credibility for the governing regime of an indicted war criminal."

(Anthony Georgieff in Copenhagen contributed to this report)