- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 17, 2000

The saddest and most morbid "joke" heard in the Soviet Union during the savage Stalinist days turns on the heart-stopping "midnight knock" on a Moscow apartment door, the hour cherished by the dreaded KGB for arresting its victims. The "joke" is short but very much to the point even in Vladimir Putin's Russia and it goes like this:

It's midnight and the janitor of a Moscow tenement is racing through the house pounding briskly on every door and declaiming in a loud voice:

"It's nothing to worry about, comrades. It's only that the building is on fire so you'd better get out."

It was not a farfetched leap of memory to recall this anecdote attesting to the KGB's fearsome power as I read a shocking Reuters dispatch out of Russia. The article described a raid May 11 by President Putin's gun-toting "tax collectors," three of them wearing black ski-masks, on a major media group in Moscow, one which has been critical of the Kremlin, especially over the war in Chechnya.

And just a day later came an even more shocking event. A Russian journalist, Igor Domnikov, was attacked with a hammer in the entrance to his apartment house in southeast Moscow. Mr. Domnikov, hospitalized with severe head wounds, works for a Moscow bi-weekly, Novaya Gazeta, which has published exposes about government corruption.

Mr. Putin has issued a statement saying he is for freedom of the press. Yet it can never be forgotten that Mr. Putin's Soviet career included service as a KGB spy in what was East Germany. Nor can it be forgotten that almost half of his major appointments when he was acting president were present or former members of the secret police. Nor can it be further forgotten that on Stalin's 120th birthday, Mr. Putin and other Russian leaders toasted this genocidal tyrant as they equally honored the memory of the short-lived Yuri V. Andropov, the super-Stalinist successor to Leonid Brezhnev. Last, Dusko Doder wrote in the Baltimore Sun, when Mr. Putin became deputy mayor of St. Petersburg, the KGB paid his salary, according to Mr. Putin's autobiography.

And perhaps even more to the point was the monthlong detention in late January by the Russian military of Andrei Babitskii, the courageous Radio Liberty journalist, for his coverage of the war in Chechnya. The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe has attested to the "objectivity and fairness" of his reporting by awarding Mr. Babitskii its Prize for Journalism and Democracy.

The "tax collectors" raided the head office of the Media-MOST group, comprising NTV television, Ekho Moskvy Radio, the newspaper daily Segodnya, and the weekly Itogi. The media group has exposed corruption in senior government departments. Russia is still a country without a genuine rule of law but what happened is a violation of basic principles of the constitution and the law on the media:

At 9:30 in the morning, "a masked man came into our offices," a staff member, Alexander Gulyayev, told Reuters, "and told us to gather on the first floor and leave our mobile phones behind. About an hour later, we were told we could return to our places."

Three armed and masked men had stationed themselves outside the main entrance of the Media-MOST building. Two other "tax collectors" with pistols in their belts guarded a side entrance. Three minibuses, which had delivered some 40 "tax collectors," some in uniform and some in plain clothes, were parked nearby. Groups of armed men were posted outside other Media-MOST offices which house Internet and satellite communications companies. And all this happened just four days after Mr. Putin was sworn in as president of the Russian Federation. What next?

Media-MOST is part of the MOST organization headed by Vladimir Guzinsky, a wealthy businessman. So what is this raid all about? Reuters quoted a spokesman for the FSB, the KGB successor agency, that "the searches had been conducted in connection with a criminal case against the group."

The attack on Mr. Domnikov, who suffered skull and brain injuries, is but one of many attacks on Russian journalists in recent years. Five years ago, Vladislav Listyev, a television journalist was murdered. Investigation, yes. Arrests, nil.

During the Soviet era, even in the post-Stalin era, Western correspondents often censored themselves to avoid confrontations with Soviet censors. In other words, intimidated Western journalists, if they didn't want to be expelled or have their broadcasting facilities go "out of order" at broadcast time, carried within themselves an internal censor. The attacks on the Russian media over five years are intended to cow Russian publishers and their employees and to encourage installation of an internal censor in their brains.

Stories have begun to circulate in Moscow that Mr. Putin knew nothing about the raid on the MOST organization. If that is the case, then the new Russian president will have to act publicly against the law-breaking "tax collectors" and encourage the Moscow police to find out who wanted to kill Mr. Domnikov. We'll wait and see but with little hope that Mr. Putin will do anything or be able to do anything about the 8,000 to 10,000 criminal groups active in Russia. According to Interpol, these gangs, employing 100,000 people, control some 40,000 firms and 550 banks.

Nobel Laureate Alexander Solzhenitsyn, 81, despairingly told Agence France Presse a few days ago:

"Our whole apparatus is rotten. Corruption has caused everything else to rot. Not one step has been made against corruption. Why? Because they're all involved. They are drenched in it, and there's no way out."

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