- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 3, 2000

New developments in Russia add to the mounting evidence that the Kremlin is seeking considerably greater influence over Russia's mass media. But viewing these battles solely as a defense of the country's free press ignores Russian realities and obscures other developments that may be more troubling.

Recent visits to the United States by the Russian oligarchs Boris Berezovsky and Vladimir Gusinsky have been clearly aimed at rallying American support for attempts by the two men to fend off government pressure on their media empires. Mr. Berezovsky is trying to maintain some influence at Russia's ORT public television, in which he owns a 49 percent stake, while Mr. Gusinsky hopes to find a way to keep control of his firm Media-MOST currently in default on substantial loans from the gas monopoly Gazprom. As a part of this effort, each of the two has strongly criticized Russia's direction under President Vladimir Putin and stressed his own commitment to democracy, free markets and free expression.

In both cases, there is less here than meets the eye. In fact, the commitment of Mr. Berezovsky and Mr. Gusinsky to a free press seems inversely proportional to their closeness to the Kremlin. Both men were more than willing to allow their television stations and newspapers to become state propaganda organs to get their patron Boris Yeltsin re-elected; they became uncomfortable with this role only when it became clear that they would have considerably less access to, and influence over, Mr. Yeltsin's successor. Similarly, neither has hesitated to use the media under his control to advance personal political and business objectives.

Mr. Berezovsky's increasingly zealous "defense" of Russian democracy conducted through his dramatic resignation from parliament, various open letters and attempts to find allies in the United States seems to be largely a reprise of Mr. Gusinsky's highly successful exploitation of the opposition of his television station, NTV, to the Putin government and carefully cultivated Western contacts to blunt the Kremlin's strong pressure on him earlier this year. Mr. Berezovsky's case is harder to make, however; Mr. Gusinsky at least had the foresight to position himself as a "democrat" much earlier and has played at politics in Washington, where he has hired top-flight law and public relations firms, as well as in Moscow. Mr. Berezovksy's more recent "conversion" is much more obviously opportunistic.

Moreover, other developments may be more significant for Russian media freedom than the government's assaults on Mr. Gusinsky and Mr. Berezovsky. Russia's new "information doctrine" which describes some media activity as a threat to Russian security and provides a basis for greater state control is particularly troubling. It demonstrates a clear failure to understand the importance of the media as a check on government power and a fundamental mistrust of the ability of Russian citizens to decide for themselves which media outlets are reliable and which are not.

Press Minister Mikhail Lesin's admission that the government has classified a portion of his ministry's budget as "secret" is also of concern. Though Mr. Lesin claimed that the funds are to be used for "special propaganda measures" related to Russia's ongoing brutal intervention in Chechnya, many Russians have expressed concern that the government may have plans for secret subsidies to particular newspapers or other media.

On a related matter, the government's spending on the media is listed in next year's budget as a single line item rather than a group of individual accounts. Needless to say, this would also serve to conceal state support for favored media organizations.

While the Kremlin's pressure on Mr. Berezovsky and Mr. Gusinsky is multi-dimensional and is not solely related to their media holdings after all, both have amassed great personal wealth under questionable circumstances the information doctrine and new measures by the press ministry are less ambiguous in their impact. Each of these moves markedly alters the environment in which the Russian media operate.

They also change the relationship between the Russian media and its audience. Television and newspapers today are often heavily slanted toward particular political interests, but viewers and readers know who is paying for what. They also know which media the state controls and which it does not. Obscuring state support for media outlets not only weakens the free press, but also undermines the confidence of an already cynical public in the information they receive. Neither of these developments will contribute to Russian democracy.

The United States can and should express concern over declining press freedoms in Russia. But our support must be reserved for processes and institutions rather than individuals particularly Russia's tycoons. Too much is at stake in Russia for America to become involved in Moscow's political intrigues.

Paul J. Saunders is director of The Nixon Center.

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