The administration of Russian President Vladimir Putin, a former KGB official, finalized a special operation against what remained of the few democratic institutions in Russia whose roots had been systematically eroded during Boris Yeltsin’s years on office.
On his way to personal dictatorship, Mr.Putin continues to gather control over major state powers into his hands. At the same time, Russia’s Parliament has ceased to function as a check on presidential authority. The military, internal forces and tax police are being reorganized and retooled under Putin’s trusted KGB cronies, and there is no longer any pretense that the rule of law applies in Russia.
Last week the Kremlin successfully took down the only relatively independent mass media news outlet in Russia – the NTV media network. It happened as a result of a special operation, which began year ago and was specifically designed to establish government control over NTV which has. from time to time, been critical of Putin’s policies and his bloody war in Chechnya, among other issues.
This operation was held in abeyance because until now Kremlin still needed Western financial help and investments, and Putin could not afford to use force against NTV openly as it was used in Russia in Soviet Times.
For example, he couldn’t use open repression, or ban publications and take away broadcasting licenses, expropriate property, or use other traditional totalitarian tools.
In the beginning of the operation, the Kremlin used law-enforcement agencies and the office of the Prosecutor-General to bring criminal charges against founder of NTV, Vladimir Gusinsky, and conduct raids of masked and heavily armed police on NTV facilities. Mr.Gusinsky, who created his Media-Most Empire in 1990s, is one of Russia’s so-called oligarchs, or businessmen who used their Kremlin connections to amass vast fortunes in dubious illegal or semi-legal privatization deals when Boris Yeltsin was president.
It’s very difficult to connect his name with in any sense with real democracy, but in the authoritarian policies of Boris Yeltsin’s successor, Mr.Gusinsky saw a threat to his assets, and his media became critical to the new Russian President.
Under cover of searching for evidence of crimes in NTV’s business activities, the Russian police turned everything in Mr.Gusinsky office upside down, but during some dozen police raids no such convincing evidence was ever discovered.
Police officials also interrogated many NTV employees and arrested Gusinsky, who in a few weeks was mysteriously released from jail and immediately left the country, along with some of his close associates.
According to some reports, he exchanged his release from jail for a promise to stop criticizing the Kremlin in his media, but knowing Russian bureaucracy from inside Mr.Gusinsky never believe that authorities would ever leave him alone.
Like all other Russian oligarchs, Mr.Gusinsky keeps his major assets abroad in Western banks and believed that he would be better off far away from Russia. But in a few weeks Gusinsky was arrested in Spain under the warrant from the office of the Russian Prosecutor-General and until recently faced extradition on the fraud charges he denied.
However, the problem with his Media-Most operation was not resolved, and NTV continued critical coverage of the Kremlin. As a result of this, the Kremlin decided to change the direction of their special operation and chose to use civil rather than criminal prosecutions against his business and financial operations. Using the debt owed by Gusinsky’s media corporation to the government-controlled natural gas monopoly, or Gazprom, the authorities decided to clamp Gazprom’s control on NTV and other of Gusinsky’s media operations.
Bringing this change of direction to a successful conclusion took months,
but it finally happened. In a series of manipulated court trials Gazprom took over NTV and appointed new managers. There was resistance by NTV personnel to accept the new leadership, but last week NTV headquarters was taken over by Gazprom with the help of special police units.
It was done when President Putin was out of Moscow, so he could pretend that he had nothing to do with the controversy over NTV, or with his government’s repression against freedom of the press in Russia.
From now on, Russia has no free press at all. After Gazprom took control over NTV, other of Mr.Gusinsky’s media entities such as a daily newspaper, magazine and radio-channel were shut down, again with help from Gazprom, and the Kremlin’s long-planned special operation was brought to a successful conclusion.
Attempts by some Western businessmen to save Russia’s only independent TV channel and to preserve its independence by purchasing Mr.Gusinsky’s stock in Media-Most were blocked by Kremlin leaders, who usually welcome new investments. Public support for displaced NTV personnel didn’t last and Gazprom has replaced the station management and all the leading correspondents. From now on the Kremlin has a free hand in dealing with Media-Most. It can redirect its coverage and replace management as many times as it likes, and finally it can sell this company to anybody else it wants at a handsome profit, but NTV will never again be the same relatively independent media it once was.
As for Gusinsky – last week a Spanish court ruled against extraditing the media magnate to Russia. The decision at the National Court was a victory for Gusinsky, who was arrested last December, released from jail in Madrid in March on $5.5 million bail. Since then he has watched helplessly as his Media-Most empire’s flagship NTV came under attack and fall under Gazprom’s control.
Officially he was charged by the office of Russian Prosecutor-General with misrepresenting the assets of Media-Most to obtain $300 million in loan guarantees in 1996 from Gazprom. However, on April 18, the Spanish court said that the grounds for Russia’s case against Gusinsky would not amount to a crime in Spain, so he would not be extradited, and his case could be resolved in civil proceedings, not by criminal charges.
Spanish prosecutors who essentially represent Russia in this case had three days to appeal, but said that the case is closed. It means that from now on Mr.Gusinsky has a right to free travel worldwide, but cannot go to Russia for the time being.
Next month Russian Foreign minister Igor Ivanov will come to Washington for his talks with the U.S. leaders. He will speak about NMD, arms control and some other issues, which are really important to the bumpy American-Russian relations.
However, it would be a good time to ask Moscow about what is going on in Russia with the major democratic freedoms, which the U.S. as recognized leader of the democratic world, has to promote and defend. Especially when it comes to promotng democracy in Russia, which already has cost American taxpayers many billions of dollars.
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