- The Washington Times - Monday, August 7, 2000

Relying on a flair for subterfuge, Russian President Vladimir Putin is effectively muzzling the country's media. Mr. Putin may be able to charm world leaders, whom he has impressed with this smooth demeanor and grasp of economics, but that is only one side of the coin of Russian leadership in the Putin era. Russia's new president has fine-tuned his ability to intimidate his people at home, using seemingly legitimate economic arguments to silence dissent.To the chagrin of all the world leaders who have long downplayed Mr. Putin's extensive KGB credentials, Mr. Putin is amassing powers of suppression reminiscent of Soviet days. The question for the rest of the world is, how far will we go along to get along? Are the bad old days really so far behind us that we can overlook anti-democratic transgressions with hardly a word? Just one decade after the fall of communism that should not be the case.

The media have been a favored target for Mr. Putin since he stepped in as acting president on Jan. 1. this year. Among his first decisions in office was to arrest a Radio Liberty reporter whose stories out of Chechnya told of Russian horrors perpetrated against the population there. This was clearly a sign of things to come.

Another of Mr. Putin's key targets has been Vladimir Gusinsky's media conglomerate, Media-Most. The company is Russia's last bastion of independent reporting and has been the Kremlin's most vocal critic. The Russian government has not been amused. In May, Mr. Putin made a clumsy, high profile strike against his perceived adversary, sending in gun-toting law enforcement officials in black ski masks to raid Media-Most, on charges of tax evasion. After the raid generated global outrage, the charges were dropped, and Mr. Gusinsky released from captivity.

Since then, Mr. Putin has significantly sharpened his skill for intimidation. On Thursday, the New York Times reported that, according to a Russian official, a state controlled company was in negotiations to acquire the media company. Media-Most owes the state-owned company Gazprom, a giant energy conglomerate, almost $400 million in debt and although that loan has apparently not come due yet, Mr. Gusinsky is reportedly coming under intense pressure to repay it immediately.

What the Kremlin may have threatened Mr. Gusinsky with is unknown. Still, however this scenario plays out, Mr. Putin will likely come out on top in the power struggle, just as he has in all the others during his brief tenure. If Gazprom acquires Media-Most, then the Kremlin will have established a state-owned monopoly on broadcast journalism in Russia through a seemingly mundane financial transaction. If Mr. Gusinsky is able to temporarily get the Kremlin goons off his back, he will surely be badly shaken by the experience. Media-Most may well become an insipid incarnation of the feisty critic it is today.

Hopefully, someone with deep pockets will step in to bail out Mr. Gusinsky. If not, Mr. Putin's powers will become even more irresistible.

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