RUSSIAN GOVERNMENT TAKES CONTROL of TELEVISION
War of the Vladimirs… Return to the Bad Old Days? 4 pg
by Michael Hammerschlag
Alarming all who worried about Vladimir Putin’s KGB past, a coordinated campaign against oligarchs* Gusinsky and Berezovsky has delivered both the two largest Russian television networks: ORT and NTV (the only independent one), into nominal government hands. The third, RTR, is already government controlled. Unlike 9 years ago, when TV was almost unwatchable and everyone read, now (as in other Western countries), people get most of their news from TV- over 60%. Of the several vital measures of a civil society: a fair and balanced court system, trustworthy and honest police, a consistent and responsive government- the only one that was functioning: a free press, is now seriously endangered.
NTV and Vladimir Gusinsky have been subjected to an
unparalleled assault, that started (this time) with the police raid in May
2000. In Russia the government doesn’t signal it’s displeasure to media outlets
by denying access or revoking credentials- they send hooded machine gun-toting
anti-terrorist commandos to kick in doors, rip through offices, and push
employees around. Yeltsin first did this to Media-MOST (Gusinsky’s company that
includes NTV, the political mag Novaya Gazeta, Sevodnya, +
publishing house Sem Dei, popular Ekho Moskvy radio- all some of
the last independent organs) in response to their highly critical coverage of
the 1st Chechen War, and Putin followed suit, also enraged by their stories. In
Dec., Berezovsky’s hdqtrs was raided.
With Yeltsin, these acts were shots across the bow, but Putin has decided to run them through to their logical conclusion: government control (or at least veto power), through cutouts, of television and other media outlets- the situation before that led to the huge paper- Pravda (Truth), printing mostly lies. The psychological damage caused by the promulgation of lies in the Soviet Union was immeasurable; families of the millions of murdered victims of Stalin’s purges were never even told one word of what had happened to their fathers, husbands, mothers, or siblings. Casualties from WW2 were 8 million higher than what had been admitted before ‘91. “They told us we lived in the richest country in the world,” said a cab driver in poverty-ridden Russia, where people lived 3 or 4 to a room, “and we believed them.” This was the most deeply gratifying thing about reporting in Russia after the collapse of the SU: that the ravenous populace regarded your profession as a godsend, however sullied it had been. In a April 7th protest of 10 thousand viewers at Ostankino, a placard read "Protection From Lies!"
Putin plans to license all magazines and papers, has enacted an Information Security Doctrine that shuns foreign involvement in media (good luck, Ted), and is concentrating all press control in Moscow with the help of 7 regional representatives. Most papers and mags still receive Soviet-era state subsidies- as well as free paper and printing, giving Press Minister Lesin many handles of control and retaliation (he has claimed that the government is in more danger from the media than vice versa). Russians simply wouldn’t believe that I wasn’t paid by the American (or Russian) government in ’93, so alien was the concept of an independent press. Indeed, outside of Moscow + Petersburg, 3 out of 10 Russians think “the existence of non-state media is harmful”, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, and the archetypal tough unflappable maximum leader Putin remains popular- 75% support by a new poll.
News from Russia has a short shelf life: every government edict; every new law was likely to be countermanded days or weeks later, then reinstated, then re-voided, then revived. The Chechen Wars followed that script, as has the Kremlin’s campaign against Gusinsky and Berezovsky. To recap:
1997 Alfred Kokh fired as privatization deputy after allegations of rigged auctions of hundreds of billions of assets (going to the wrong oligarch- not Gusinsky or Berezovsky), alleged loan + book fee bribes; Pilloried by Yeltsin + NTV
1998 Kokh charged with embezzlement; Barred from leaving Moscow
1999 --Kokh refused entry to NYC as wanted criminal
State-owned Gazprom + Vneshekonom Bank start calling in loans to NTV
May 2000 Commando raid on Media-MOST Gusinsky’s Hdqtrs. after start of Putin's elected term
--Igor Domnikov, a Novaya Gazeta reporter, beaten into a coma + death with a hammer
June 10 Kokh placed in charge of Gazprom (state gas co.)
13 Gusinsky arrested in Moscow, imprisoned for 3 days in czarist hellhole
July 20 Charged with embezzlement, Gusinsky signs agreement to sign empire over to Gazprom (who had lent
him $467 mil) in exchange for canceling debt, $300 mil in cash, and right to leave the country
Sept Gusinsky, in London, reneged on deal, claiming coercion
--ORT news show cancelled by government after they report Putin plans to take over network
--Berezovsky claims being pressured to sell ORT, leaves country when is summoned for questioning
Nov 11 Gazprom head Kokh signs another agreement w Gusinsky
Nov 13 Kokh voids agreement, Prosecutor issues arrest warrant for Gusinsky, now in London, for
asset stripping + receiving loans against non-existent assets
Nov 17 Kokh signs another agreement, increasing Gazprom stake in NTV from 30 to 49%, sues-
demanding 19% more, which arbitration court seized
Nov 20- 22 Prosecutors summon NTV general director Kiselyov and 2 reporters to be interrogated about stories on
corruption in the privatization of Aluminum industry- with hidden video footage of meetings between gov
ministers and Maifiya bosses
Dec 5 Berezovsky hdqtrs raided by government commandos
Dec 12 Gusinsky arrested in Spain (company incorporated in Gibraltar), pending extradition
Dec 15 Moscow taxman seeks liquidation of Media MOST, claiming net assets below minimum
required (Gusinsky’s holdings devastated by ‘98 65% ruble collapse)
Dec 17 Novaya Gazeta reporter Oleg Lurye brutally beaten, face slashed in attack at home
Dec 23 Gusinsky released on $5.5 mil bail
Jan 4, 2001 Moscow Court throws out all charges against Gusinsky
Jan 5 Another court reinstates them
Ted Turner (+ George Soros) negotiate to buy 25% of NTV, attempting to preserve some
Jan 11 semblance of independence, Media MOST deputy chairman interrogated for second day, prevented
from meeting with investors; Gazprom viewed investors’ talks “negatively”
Jan 12 Moscow city finance minister charged with abuse of power for “lending” $200 million to
Media MOST --Media MOST sues Gazprom for voiding agreement
Jan 16 Media MOST finance director Anton Titov arrested; searched home + office
Jan 25 Court Marshalls seize disputed 19% shares of NTV + exclude them from voting;
Kokh brags that he has assumed control of NTV w 46% of 81%; Plans to appoint 5 Gazprom board
members of 9
--Prosecutor summoned Gusinsky’s deputy + NTV anchorwoman for interrogation
Jan 29 Putin meets with group of journalists, claims welcomes Turner’s interest (sure)
Jan 30 NTV ordered to retract report on Prosecutor-General’s alleged corruption for receiving apartments from Kremlin
Property Manager Borodin, in jail in NYC on Swiss Kremlin renovation kickback indictment
Feb 5 Government, via oligarch Roman Abramovich, buys Berezovsky’s (who also is wanted for fraud) 49% stake in ORT, Russia’s largest television network; appoints all 11 board members- taking control
Abramovich, who won the governorship of vast empty Arctic Chokotka, is aluminum and oil oligarch and is still close to Putin. Gusinsky said, “Putin presented Russia as a democracy to the world while.. installing a regime of security services.”
Feb 9 Further raids on Gusinsky offices, the 30th time, including freezing their bank accounts
March 13 Russian Duma’s Audit Committee recommends that Gazprom get out of media business
Kokh grilled by State Dept. and Nat. Security officials in Washington
March 23 Spanish court rules Gusinsky, rearrested week before, must remain in prison
31 20,000 people protest crackdown on NTV in Moscow center
April 3 Gazprom ousts NTV board; appoints 5 Gazprom and 3 NTV reps on new one + American Boris Jordan as
mngr; On air protests by employees
Turner claims has finalized deal to buy Gusinsky's portion of NTV
April 5 NTV resists takeover by new boss, Boris Jordan, with live televised angry debate and protest
Another protest of 10,000 in the rain at
Ostankino TV tower (5 Ostankino photos fm '93 Oct
April 8 4000 protest in St. Petersburg
Gusinsky + Berezovsky, after Kokh granted Norilsk Nickel and Svyazinvest Telecom to Uneximbank + Soros, rather than Media-MOST, viciously hammered Kokh (and other enemies) in their media networks, exposing several scandals about interest free loans and book advance payments that led to his dismissal and further embarrassment as head of a Chubais investment fund. Considering the various former and potential criminal charges against Kokh, there is speculation that he is an unwilling tool of the Kremlin (even NTV head Kiselyov claims to have “sympathy” for him)-- but there is plenty of bad blood between Kokh and Gusinsky- they even got in a fistfight over Gusinsky’s “surrender” agreement last July.
It’s hard to find too much sympathy for the 7 oligarchs who, in totally corrupt auctions and deals, cornered perhaps 40% of the wealth of an empire for fractions of a penny on the dollar: some are men who have probably picked up the phone and had people killed- they are part bright young business executives and part Al Capone (though Gusinsky may have been an exception, and 2 oligarchs were almost wiped out in the ’98 Ruble collapse). But compared to a government that killed 20 million of it’s own people, they don’t look as bad. All things are relative- nowhere more so than Russia. The gentle standards of Western malfeasance don’t work there. And in such a corrupt place, where colonels sell anti-aircraft missiles to the rebels they are in the middle of fighting, it takes powerful hombres to criticize the government. If Putin shuts them down so easily, smaller venues have little chance to report embarrassing truths. For all their corruption, the most courageous reporters in the world are in Russia and the CIS.
During the 1996 elections, both magnates turned their networks into Yeltsin propaganda machines, denying any time to his vilified competitors (they helped Putin too). The need to control this overwhelming air power in future elections may be motivating Putin over all else. Like Goebbels in 1933, or the Communists attacking the Ostankino TV tower in the ‘93 revolt ; those who control the airwaves, control the country. Now the government controls it all, which means Putin may have a long run. Did they commit the “crimes” they are charged with? No doubt they could be righteously imprisoned on dozens of charges, but making money itself was punishable by execution as recently as 1979, and anyone involved in business in Russia commits dozens of infractions- the contradictory laws change by the day and depend on who is enforcing them (or applying them; most laws are never used, except in some vendetta).
And that is the point: nothing bad happens to powerful people in Russia without other powerful people causing it. These things have only happened to Gusinsky because of Putin’s anger at negative coverage of the brutal Chechen War (see untold story), his humiliation over the sinking of the Kursk, the outrageous puppet parody "Kukly", and a documentary about the very strange staged government “test of Ryazan security” by the planting of an apartment bomb (a series of devastating apartment bombs in Russia in 99 was the reason for the resumption of the Chechen War)—after which NTV’s problems supposedly really started. “Many people think that was a provocation to launch a new Chechen War,” says a female teacher in Moscow. Other oligarchs in the Kremlin’s favor have been unmolested. Although Putin claimed to NTV journalists the Prosecutor’s office was “independent”, Prosecutor General Ustinov admitted his office was an “instrument of the will and decisions of the Russian President”.
The networks aren’t the only crack-down: the day after Izvestia published letters against reinstating the Soviet Anthem, the Kremlin management dept. filed suit questioning the legitimacy of the privatization of Izvestia’s building (after the wild privatization of most of Moscow in 1991-94, 90% could be “questioned”).
Ted Turner is claiming to be buying out Gusinsky with a 30% stake, but I don't think Ted has much chance of keeping NTV "independent" if Putin and Gazprom doesn't want it so- and it's obvious they don't. Russia has seen a host of American media companies come in + dump millions (inc. Hearst for mag I wrote for- We/Mui), then just giving up at Russians' rampant intransigence, opaqueness, or criminality. 2 heads of Russian TV and the most popular news-talk show host were previously murdered.
Attacks and murders of journalists have skyrocketed in the last year: In Dec Novaya Gazeta investigative reporter Oleg Luriye, who had investigated the Mabitex/Swiss Kremlin renovation kickback case that put powerful Kremlin Property Manager (where Putin started in Kremlin) Borodin in a NYC jail and just extradited to Switzerland, was seriously beaten and had his face slashed; days later Novaya Gazeta Ryazan contributors that had reported the “training exercise” fake government bombing were beaten. In Sept, Iskander Katloni, a Tadjik Radio Free Europe correspondent in Moscow working on Chechnya human rights abuses, was killed after being attacked with an ax. A crusading Ukrainian reporter disappeared in Sept., his headless corpse was discovered 2 weeks later. An opposition lawmaker has produced an alleged audiotape that seems to show Ukraine’s President Kuchma plotting his demise, the one event that has outraged the populace. In May NG reporter Igor Domnikov was beaten to death with a hammer (always at their apartment entryway). He may have been mistaken for another NG reporter in the same building who had reported on corruption in the oil business. Nobody is ever convicted, let alone charged, for any murder or attack- unless it’s a domestic dispute and the perp is caught with bloody hands on a weapon.
Vladimir Putin emerged from the dark recesses of the KGB as something of a tentative last hope- perhaps he could stifle the Mafiya‡ thugs that extort every business, but his natural predilection is to regard the media as a dangerous weapon that must be controlled, not a vital part of a healthy society. And, as a typical Russian leader, he will accumulate and consolidate power without limits. The tycoons should probably be cut down to size, but not by this President; Putin might not allow them to be replaced by anything but Government yes men, the empty gray suits that suffocated the Soviet Union with vapid lies and senseless propaganda for 7 decades. In the bad old days of the SU, the government would usually just confine recalcitrant journalists to mental asylums or do 3am interrogations, now they seem to have also countenanced or incorporated the savage violence of the Mafiya clans. Spain should think twice about aiding Putin’s political prosecutions of the press by returning Gusinsky.
Commentator Yevgenia Albats says it well in a Moscow Times column:
“It is clear the Kremlin has sufficient tools to manage disloyal media: loans can be recalled, customs deals can be investigated, privatization can be re-examined. The result though, is that the extent of freedom of the press in Russia depends entirely on the opinions and action of the.. leaders. Yeltsin supported freedom of the press, and voila, it existed. Putin does not. For Putin, media are only good to the extent that they endorse the state’s policies without questioning them. When they don’t they become the state’s enemy.”
<<<Oct '93 1am, Varshavskaya, Moscow: Walking the 9 minutes home from the metro in a quiet secluded residential area, my worst nightmare became reality. A BMW slowed as it passed me, then continued. Directions, I thought, my brain having returned to its normal complacency after being kidnapped at gunpoint in St. Petersburg 2 years before. Fool. BMW's were the company cars of the Mafiya. 100 ft. from my building door, 4 huge guys appeared on an intersecting course, just as I had known it would happen. This was it- I'd never seen anyone near my building after midnight before. One of them didn't want to do it, though, and angled off from the others. "Where are you going, come on", they exhorted. Speed walking to the door, I sprinted to the 4th floor, caught the elevator to 8, and sent it to 6 to confuse them.. but within 30 seconds they were camped on my landing, loudly chatting for 5 minutes. It was a message. They could have been sent by Mafiya, Communist, or Government bosses enraged at my articles (I’d criticized the Mafiya gangs, the Communist Parliament, Yeltsin’s crushing of other powers, the rampant corruption); a girlfriend’s hoodlum boyfriend; or dubiously I was just a random target of opportunity- a rich foreigner. I never knew. Like so many things there it was lost in a miasmic cloud of fear and ignorance. For the next week I circled around, crossing the mud and hills of the train tracks to approach from the other side, where I studied the building carefully. 2 days later a car idled at the entrance (also unprecedented) + I crouched for an hour in the cold, debating alternatives. Complaining to the useless local militsia just could lead to other future risks: for foreigners and journalists safety lay in anonymity.>>>
THE NEW EVIL EMPIRE- The Mafiya in Russia-- author
Copyright © 2001 Michael Hammerschlag
*oligarch means monopolist, tycoon, and bully and is such an alien word, it fits- since the world’s never seen men of such instant unwarranted wealth: 0-billions in 2-4 years
‡ I’ve used “Mafiya” for the Russian crime groups that extort virtually every business in Russia, because everyone thinks Mafia exclusively means Italians, though there are dozens of groups in the US, Italy, etc. The difference is one of scale: the Mafia does crime; the Mafiya does everything, taking maybe 30% of all profits in the country. In Ukraine + several other CIS countries, it’s even worse.