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Russian president expands power { April 20 2003 }

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Sunday, April 20, 2003
Putin's Media Blitz

As the Kremlin shuts down more news outlets, the Russian President expands his power

Last Wednesday was deliverance day for Vladimir Gusinsky. When a Madrid court turned down Russia's request to extradite the 48-year-old media magnate on fraud charges ending his 10-month tussle with Kremlin prosecutors Gusinsky savored his redemption. Fielding congratulatory calls on three phones at his villa in Sotogrande, he told one well-wisher, "This isn't the end of anything. It's the beginning."

But of what? Even as he basked poolside, Gusinsky knew that the few remaining properties in his once-sprawling Media-Most empire were being liquidated, part of an assault on Russia's independent press carried out by the state-controlled conglomerate Gazprom, but indisputably coordinated in the highest reaches of Vladimir Putin's government. Journalists at Gusinsky's daily newspaper Segodnya and the weekly magazine Itogi received their walking papers Tuesday, and at week's end the embattled entrepreneur announced plans to sell his 49.5% stake in NTV, the nationwide TV network he founded in October 1993 that was independent until the week before. Deliverance, Gusinsky swiftly realized, has a price.

He isn't the only one paying it. The dismantling of Media-Most has left Russia without any credible voice to challenge the information machine of an increasingly authoritarian government. And as Putin's grip on the media tightened last week, so did his control of Russian party politics. Otechestvo, a party headed by former Putin rivals Yuri Luzhkov and Yevgeni Primakov, announced that it would merge with the pro-Putin Yedvinstvo party in November; two more Duma factions threw their lot in with the new force, giving the government a 235-vote majority. Though the Kremlin maintains its actions are financially motivated, many observers don't buy it. "This is a real media pogrom," says political analyst Lilia Shevtsova. "And it's no coincidence the Kremlin has carried it out at the same time it makes obvious plans to form a ruling state party."

The media silencing has served another Putin purpose: discouraging foreigners from meddling in Russia's affairs. Ted Turner, the American founder of cnn who was prepared to buy Gusinsky's stake in NTV, is now likely to drop out of the deal following Gazprom's boardroom takeover that forced more than 300 staffers to walk out in protest. Newsweek severed ties with the freshly purged Itogi which the American magazine had helped publish since 1996 and asked the reconstituted periodical to stop using the Newsweek logo. Western governments scrambled to find creative ways of gently expressing their unqualified outrage. The European Union's envoy to Moscow murmured that the issue of press freedom might cloud next month's E.U.-Russia summit.

The events in Moscow came at an awkward time for the Bush Administration, which is trying to hype its so-far-so-good relationship with Putin. Last week the State Department publicly called the campaign against Media-Most "politically motivated" and "deeply disappointing." But more dramatic moves, such as excluding Russia from meetings of the G-8 group of industrialized nations or blocking its access to the World Trade Organization, were only idly discussed. "If the Russian people are not willing to defend this valuable achievement," said a State Department official, "then it's not up to us to defend it."

It's unlikely that anyone could have rescued last week's victims. Both Segodnya and Itogi had earned the Kremlin's disapproval for their clear-eyed reporting on embarrassments such as the Kursk submarine disaster and the quagmire in Chechnya. The publications were owned by Gusinsky's Sem Dnei publishing house, of which Gazprom held a 25% stake plus one share; another 25% was held by Sem Dnei's president, Dmitry Biryukov. After watching Gazprom eviscerate NTV, Biryukov parted company with Gusinsky. On Monday night, one hour before Segodnya was supposed to go to press, Biryukov told editor-in-chief Mikhail Berger that the issue would not be printed. On Tuesday morning, when Itogi's 70-plus staffers turned up for work, security guards wouldn't even let them park their cars in the company lot.

Some of the ousted reporters, including Itogi editor Sergei Parkhomenko, vowed to keep publishing on the Internet, for as long as they can elude suppression. Last week the Kremlin went after TNT a small Media-Most network that has housed many former NTV staffers since Gazprom's takeover charging the network's accountant with tax evasion. Alexei Venediktov, the head of the popular radio station Ekho Moskvy, expects that "we'll be next in line," and sources tell Time that the Kremlin will soon kill off two liberal weeklies. The heat has also been turned up at TV-6, the channel controlled by exiled tycoon Boris Berezovsky and now run by a group of former NTV stars. The government is said to be pressuring Lukoil, the energy giant that owns a 15% stake in TV-6, to buy out Berezovsky for $120 million.

Perhaps the biggest problem for independent journalists is the Kremlin's ownership of the airwaves. A source told Time that the regime has ordered Gazprom to cut TV-6 off the satellite that sends the channel's feed to a dozen provinces outside Moscow; the move would strip TV-6 of millions of viewers. Both TNT and TV-6 also rely on local television companies to carry their programming. The Kremlin allegedly has ordered local firms not to cooperate with either channel. Says Oleg Panfilov, a director of the Center for Journalism in Extreme Situations: "Once all the media in the provinces and the capital are subdued, Putin will have total control of the entire information space."

Does anyone really care? Earlier this month, thousands of Russians protested the imminent crackdown on NTV. But when it finally came, no one took to the streets. Though polls show that 59% of the population support the "old" NTV, Putin's approval ratings remain high. Some expect the Kremlin to disband the Duma and call early elections to ensure the emerging pro-Putin party gains total control of the parliament's lower house.

The gutting of the free press may have ominous consequences beyond Russia's borders. Western officials warn that foreign investment may dry up and that Russia's credibility and influence abroad will weaken. "You can't extinguish the ability of your own people to criticize the government and then expect to be taken seriously," says a State Department official.

"Actions like this ultimately make it impossible for the Russians to join important international institutions." But such exclusion could also isolate Moscow and further fuel anti-Western resentment among ordinary Russians. That's bad news, no matter who delivers it.

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