Media mogul's arrest shows Putin's true face

Showdown in Moscow: Media magnate is detained because he dares to criticize president.

June 17, 2000

EVERYONE WHO wants to know what kind of leader President Vladimir Putin really is should pay attention to a drama now unfolding in Moscow. One of Russia's post-communist overnight billionaires is in jail with common criminals, charged with fraud.

Vladimir Gusinsky's real crime seems to be lese majeste, an offense unknown in the United States that falls somewhere between sedition and brazen disrespect of the ruler.

Despite the Kremlin's open and veiled warnings to cease and desist, Mr. Gusinsky's media outlets have continued to satirize the president, attack the government's collusion with organized crime and criticize the disastrous war in Chechnya. This is his reward.

President Putin, a former KGB officer, claims to have no direct personal knowledge of the Gusinsky case.

His assertion is laughable; nothing this serious happens without the Kremlin's approval.

Since May, when stormtroopers raided Mr. Gusinsky's headquarters, the government has been steadily tightening the screws. Officials have gone so far as revoking recognition of Moscow's chief rabbi in a retaliatory move against Mr. Gusinsky, who heads the Russian Jewish Congress.

Mr. Gusinsky's empire is called Media-MOST (after an American MOST bank machine he once saw and thought it miraculous). Among his holdings are the country's only independent television network, Moscow's top-rated radio station, respected newspapers and the Itogi newsweekly, which he publishes in cooperation with Newsweek. He also has a 25 percent stake in Ma'ariv, a leading Israeli media group.

Mr. Gusinsky's arrest has shocked Russia. It should. It shows that Mr. Putin wants to stamp out all dissent. Plenty of shady millionaires in Russia these days are involved in criminal activity. They have a license to steal, though, as long as they do not criticize the president.

In singling out Mr. Gusinsky, the most international of those "oligarchs," as his first target, Mr. Putin is taking a calculated risk. If he succeeds in brow-beating Media-MOST into submission, he will have an easier time moving against other money men whose wealth makes them potential rival power centers.

The troubling events show that, unlike President Boris N. Yeltsin, Mr. Putin is no believer in democratic values. He clearly wants to be an effective leader, whose goal is to restore the big-power respect his country enjoyed under Soviet rule. If heads have to be cracked, he will not hesitate to do so.

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