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Russia: Media-MOST Official Rails Against Putin

When Russian border guards delayed his trip to Salzburg this week, it put media company official Igor Malashenko into a foul humor. RFE/RL correspondent Tuck Wesolowsky caught up with Malashenko at an economic forum in Austria to talk about the Russian government moves against Media-MOST.

Salzburg, 30 June 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Igor Malashenko doesn't have a lot of nice things to say about Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Malashenko, the first deputy chairman of the board of the Russian media group Media-MOST, says Putin is transforming Russia back into a police state, turning back the clock to Soviet times. And he says the Federal Security Service -- the FSB, which Putin once headed -- is rising in power, resembling more and more its dreaded predecessor, the KGB.

Malashenko unleashed his latest vitriol against the FSB and Putin at the fifth annual Central and Eastern European Economic Summit, taking place this week in Salzburg, Austria. As he tells it, he almost didn't make it to the summit.

"We had gone through passport control, we had all the necessary stamps, on the tarmac the engines of the plane were running, then a border guard came on board and told me I am not allowed to leave Russia. After this news became well-known by Ekho Moskvy [radio] and NTV, and other news agencies, I was allowed to leave Russia."

Malashenko says this is further proof of the strong-arm tactics the government is using against his boss, Vladimir Gusinsky.

Gusinsky is accused of defrauding the state through a privatization deal to take over a Saint Petersburg television operation. Masked, gun-toting police raided his company's Moscow offices in May. And earlier this month, the media magnate, who has assets of more than $1 billion, was thrown into a Moscow prison for four days.

Gusinsky says Putin is cracking down on Media-MOST because of its critical stories about the Kremlin. Gusinsky's television station, NTV, and his other media have criticized Russia's military campaign in Chechnya and exposed corruption in the Kremlin and the upper echelons of the FSB. Other media outlets tend to be a little too cozy with the Kremlin, which makes Media-MOST essentially the sole independent voice on Russia's media scene.

With his arrest, Gusinsky has become something of a martyr for Russia's fledgling free press. Critics of Putin both in Russia and the West have cited the president's treatment of Gusinsky as proof that his embrace of democracy is tenuous. Andrei Piontkovsky, director of the Moscow-based Center for Strategic Studies and a Salzburg forum participant, says Putin's KGB background implies a shaky commitment to press freedom.

"Yeltsin, despite all his faults, always respected freedom of speech. Perhaps that was because he understood the press and the free media would come to power. Putin, with his background and biography, as you understand, doesn't have that type of respectful relationship to a free press."

Malashenko rejects the notion, put forward by some Kremlin watchers, that presidential administration head Aleksandr Voloshin was behind the crackdown on Media-MOST.

Instead, Malashenko says the Media-MOST case illustrates the rising power of the FSB. In his view, the secret service now eclipses in influence all other agencies and officials.

"An extremely worrisome tendency can be observed today in Russia which can be called the creation of a police-run government. The case with Russia I would give the special name of a government where enormous power is in the hands of the special services."

Ominously, Malashenko says the case against Media-MOST is not an isolated incident, but rather a portent of a more repressive crackdown to come against critics of Putin and his cronies.

He points to Wednesday's raid by police on a Siberian company controlled by two of the influential tycoons known as oligarchs. State-controlled RTR television showed scenes of the raid on TNK, an oil subsidiary of the powerful Alfa financial group owned by Piotr Aven and Mikhail Friedmann. That follows a Moscow court's decision last week to question the 1995 privatization of Norilsk Nickel, controlled by another oligarch, Vladimir Potanin.

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    Tony Wesolowsky

    Tony Wesolowsky is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL in Prague, covering Belarus, Ukraine, Russia, and Central Europe, as well as energy issues. His work has also appeared in The Philadelphia Inquirer, the Christian Science Monitor, and the Bulletin Of The Atomic Scientists.