War of the Vladimirs   Return to the Bad Old Days?        2   pg

                                                                        by  Michael Hammerschlag        1310 wds


Alarming all who worried about Vladimir Putin’s KGB past, a coordinated campaign against oligarchs* Gusinsky and Berezovsky has delivered the two largest Russian television networks: NTV and ORT into nominal government hands. The third, RTR, is already government controlled. Unlike 9 years ago, when TV was almost unwatchable, people now get over 60% of their news from TV. Of the several vital measures of a civil society: a fair court system, honest police, a responsive government- the only one that was functioning: a free press, is now seriously endangered.


NTV and Gusinsky have been subjected to an unparalleled assault that started with the police raid in May 2000. In Russia the government doesn’t signal it’s displeasure to media outlets by revoking credentials- they send hooded machine gun-toting anti-terrorist commandos to kick in doors, rip through offices, and terrorize employees. Yeltsin first did this to Media-MOST (Gusinsky’s company that includes NTV, the political mag Novaya Gazeta, Segodnya, + publishing house Sem Dei, popular Ekho Moskvy radio- some of the last independent outfits) 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), of television and other media outlets- which once led the huge paper- Pravda (Truth), to print 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 spouses or parents. Casualties from WW2 were 8-10 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 primitive poverty-ridden Russia, where people lived 3-4 to a room, “and we believed them.”


Putin plans to license all magazines and papers, has enacted an Information Security Doctrine that shuns foreign involvement in media, and is concentrating all press control in Moscow. Most papers and mags still receive Soviet-era state subsidies- as well as paper and printing, giving Press Minister Lesin many tools of 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 some 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 unflappable maximum leader Putin remains popular- 75% support by a new poll.


News from Russia has a short shelf life: every government edict is likely to be countermanded days later, then reinstated, then re-voided. The Chechen Wars followed that script, as has the Kremlin’s campaign against Gusinsky. First arrested last June, he was released; then pressured to sign over his media empire in exchange for $300 mil and the right to leave the country. He reneged and signed another one with bitter enemy Gazprom head Kokh (which had lent MOST $467 mil), who replaced it with an arrest warrant 2 days later. Arrested in Spain in Dec, Gusinsky awaits extradition. Through various machinations, Kokh increased Gazprom’s holdings in Media-MOST to a technical majority, declared he has control Jan 25th, and appointed a Gazprom majority to the board April 3rd.

Meanwhile, Berezovsky was charged with fraud, fled, and acting for the government, oil + aluminum oligarch Abramovich bought out Berezovsky’s 49% stake in ORT Feb 5. The Kremlin immediately appointed all 11 board members, taking full control.


It’s hard to find too much sympathy for the 7 oligarchs who, in corrupt auctions and deals, cornered perhaps 40% of the wealth of an empire for fractions of a penny on the dollar: many are men who have probably picked up the phone and had people killed- they are part sharp young business executives and part Al Capone (Gusinsky may be an exception). 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. And in such a corrupt place, where colonels sell anti-aircraft missiles to the rebels they are 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.


Gusinsky + Berezovsky have partially brought this on themselves- they’ve used their networks to smear competitors and enemies (including Kokh, who was charged with embezzlement for 2 years after not awarding businesses to them). During the 1996 elections, both magnates turned their networks into Yeltsin propaganda machines, denying any time to his vilified competitors. It is the need to control this overwhelming air power in future elections that may be motivating Putin over all else. Those who control the airwaves, control the country. Now the government controls them all, which means Putin may have a long run. Did the magnates 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 a generation ago, and anyone involved in business in Russia commits dozens of infractions- the contradictory laws change constantly and depend on who is enforcing them.


Gusinsky’s been targeted because of Putin’s anger at negative coverage of the brutal Chechen War, his humiliations in the sinking of the Kursk, and a documentary about the very strange staged government “test of Ryazan security” by the planting of an apartment bomb (a series of devastating terrorist 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. Although Putin claimed the Prosecutor’s office was “independent” to NTV journalists, 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”).


Attacks and murders of journalists have skyrocketed in the last year: In Dec Novaya Gazeta investigative reporter Oleg Luriye, who had investigated the Swiss Kremlin renovation kickback case (that put powerful Property Manager Borodin in a NYC jail) was seriously beaten and slashed; days later Novaya Gazeta Ryazan contributors that had reported the 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.. In May NG reporter Igor Domnikov was beaten to death with a hammer.  Nobody is ever convicted, let alone charged, for any murder or attack.


Vladimir Putin emerged from the dark recesses of the KGB as something of a tentative last hope- perhaps he could limit 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. As a typical Russian leader, he will accumulate power without limits. The tycoons should probably be cut down to size, but not by this President. 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. Spain should think twice about aiding Putin’s political prosecutions of the press by returning Gusinsky.

                                                                                                                                                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.


Michael Hammerschlag wrote commentary and articles for Moscow News, Guardian, Tribune, Times; + We/Mui and did radio reports for Radio South Africa and

                   KING- AM, Seattle in the 2 years he spent in Russia and the Soviet Union from ’91 to 94. He's writing a book on his experiences, which include being

                   kidnapped at gunpoint and ambushed at his apartment.  His article website is     and e-mail: