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Pushing the Boundaries of a Free Press

Russia: Media tycoon's struggle with the Kremlin is seen as a litmus test of what President Putin will allow.

June 01, 2000|ROBYN DIXON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MOSCOW — Vladimir A. Gusinsky, owner of Russia's largest independent media group, stands virtually alone among the business and political elite here in going head-to-head in battle with President Vladimir V. Putin and his powerful Kremlin chief of staff, Alexander S. Voloshin.

His lone struggle has become a kind of litmus test of what Russia will be like under the new president. If his news outlets are forced out of business, Gusinsky told The Times on Wednesday in a rare interview, then people can conclude that Russia under Putin is no longer tolerant of an open and pluralistic media.

The tycoon's media outlets generally have been among the most independent, objective and active in Russia in the post-Soviet era. They have been more openly critical in their reporting about the nation's two wars in the republic of Chechnya. In the presidential campaign that ended with Putin's election in March, Gusinsky's media--far more than others--resisted simply echoing the Kremlin line.

Gusinsky, whose Media-Most offices were raided last month by heavily armed police commandos wearing masks, told The Times that there has been persistent Kremlin pressure on him in the last year to get out of the media business and threats to bankrupt him if he refused.

But the real showdown came in a meeting last summer when, Gusinsky said, Voloshin tried to persuade him to toe the Kremlin line in the presidential election.

"Voloshin said, as if he was joking, 'Let's pay you $100 million so that you won't be in our way while the election is on. You could go on a vacation,' " Gusinsky said in the interview at his Moscow office, which was raided by commandos and searched by agents of the Federal Security Service, the main successor to the KGB.

The media tycoon said he informed Voloshin that he would not repeat the 1996 presidential election scenario, when Russia's powerful oligarchs--including Gusinsky--all backed incumbent President Boris N. Yeltsin.

He told the Kremlin chief that his media--the national NTV network, Sevodnya daily newspaper, Echo of Moscow radio and Itogi magazine--would play fair. But Voloshin said he did not believe the magnate. Gusinsky said that when he declared that he had no intention of going away, Voloshin told him that meant war between the Kremlin and Gusinsky's Media-Most.

The meeting was in the office of then-Prime Minister Sergei V. Stepashin and was attended by a Kremlin aide linked to Gusinsky, Sergei Zveryev, who was dismissed from the Kremlin staff shortly afterward. (He is not the same Sergei Zveryev who was killed in a suspected rebel bomb attack in Chechnya on Tuesday.)

The Kremlin press office could not be reached for comment Wednesday night concerning Gusinsky's allegation.

Gusinsky, 47, is a flamboyant, elegant, larger-than-life fellow who peppers his conversation with amusing stories and adores the NTV network's cheeky satirical puppet show, "Kukly." He is also stubborn, certain he is in the right and scoffs at the word compromise.

"What do you mean by a compromise with Putin?" he asked. "Take 'Kukly' off the air? Forbid journalists to tell the truth about Chechnya? Stop writing about government corruption? Should I say the entire FSB is crystal clean and just doing its job? If this is called compromise, then this is impossible."

Nothing, he said, short of a totalitarian coup would shut down his news outlets. But if Putin's media policy changed overnight and viewers turned on Gusinsky's NTV to find news programs more like what appears on a state channel, "then you'll know what's happened," he said.

Gusinsky insisted that his defiance is not just about protecting his business but also about journalistic integrity and his desire that his 21-year-old son, Ilya, who is studying in the U.S., will know that his father is a principled man.

He said he told Voloshin last summer that his media would not fight back if the Kremlin declared war.

"I was told there already was a war. He said, 'Your mass media are already writing nasty things about the government, Yeltsin, the Family.' " Voloshin is a key member of "The Family," the inner Kremlin circle that has largely remained in place in the transition from Yeltsin to Putin.

In the past, Gusinsky has not been above using his media interests to fight business battles, particularly after he lost out in a 1997 struggle to get a chunk of the Russian telecommunications company, Svyazinvest.

In addition, Gusinsky is widely regarded as having close ties to Moscow Mayor Yuri M. Luzhkov, who formed an anti-Kremlin alliance last year with former Prime Minister Yevgeny M. Primakov. But Gusinsky denies the widely held view that he backed Luzhkov and Primakov against the Kremlin.

Gusinsky said Kremlin figures exerted pressure on him in the last year to sell his media business, though sometimes the message was conveyed by intermediaries.

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