Russia launches election season with usual tricks

Fire department closes influential newspaper

players choose up sides

August 24, 1999|By Will Englund | Will Englund,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MOSCOW -- When the fire department shut down a leading newspaper here, it was a sure sign that the election season was getting under way.

"Stupidity," was how Andrei Vasiliev, the newly appointed editor of Kommersant, described the action yesterday, but nevertheless the newspaper was off the stands and will be again today. Vasiliev, who expects to resume publishing tomorrow, said he is sure that the shutdown had nothing to do with fire safety and everything to do with politics.

With Russia's parliamentary elections less than four months away, the players are frantically choosing up sides. The Kommersant episode gives a foretaste of the kind of no-mercy grappling that lies ahead.

Kommersant has been an influential and, until recently, fairly independent voice in Russian journalism, but in early August the newspaper's former editor was fired and it was revealed that Boris A. Berezovsky, the tycoon who is seemingly everyone's favorite villain, had taken control.

Berezovsky is close to President Boris N. Yeltsin. That makes him a target for politicians across the spectrum. But Vasiliev said he believes the Moscow city government was behind the fire department crackdown -- and that means one politician in particular, Mayor Yuri Luzhkov.

It doesn't require much of a stretch of the imagination to see why. Luzhkov has lined up in an election-year coalition against the Kremlin, throwing in his lot with Yevgeny M. Primakov, the former prime minister and object of Yeltsin's intense dislike. The Kremlin has been engaged in something of a press war with the media empire of another tycoon, Vladimir Gusinsky, who happens to be Luzhkov's favorite businessman.

Moreover, even though the Moscow fire inspectors are actually federal employees, they are more likely to listen to the mayor than they are to, say, Alexander Lebed who represents far-away Krasnoyarsk (though Lebed has had his own long-running battle with Berezovsky).

The fire department denies any political motivation in the shutdown, which was ordered Friday. Luzhkov yesterday said his office had nothing to do with it.

The mayor said the same thing when the Ekho Moskvi radio station was shut down by fire inspectors nine months ago. That happened on the same day that a court temporarily impounded all the equipment belonging to the ORT television network -- which is controlled by Berezovsky.

In a country where the vitriol is plentiful and where the presentation of the news sometimes seems to be nothing more than a continuation of politics by other means, attacks on the overtly partisan press are revealing but perhaps not surprising.

Until recently, though, Kommersant was a business-oriented, sober newspaper with a circulation of about 35,000. What will become of it now is hard to say -- and will the greater threat come from its enemies or its owner?

Many of its reporters and editors were dismayed to find themselves working for Berezovsky after he was revealed as the real power behind a New York-based holding company that had assumed ownership. Vasiliev, who had worked at Kommersant once before, said the paper was "organized to inform and not be engaged in propaganda."

But his job resume isn't reassuring on that score. In 1996 he was editor of an intentionally short-lived newspaper whose title could be translated as "God Forbid," which was devoted to scary stories portraying what Russia would be like if the Communists should win the-then approaching election. (They didn't.) "God Forbid" was backed by men such as Berezovsky -- who wanted to ensure that they kept their places near the seat of power.

This time around the forces of Luzhkov and Primakov pose a greater threat to the disorganized Kremlin incumbents and their friends than the perennial also-rans of the Communist Party could ever hope to. The first round has gone to the opposition. Yeltsin's people may answer with a few fire inspectors of their own.

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