Of Puppets and Oligarchs: Putin's Crackdown Continues

3 MINS READJun 15, 2000 | 05:00 GMT
Russian media oligarch Vladimir Gusinsky was arrested late June 13 on suspicion of property theft. Foreign governments, Russian liberals and oligarchs immediately criticized the arrest as an attack on independent media. Russia's oligarchs - all influential businessmen - are right to be concerned with the Russian government's new assertiveness. The arrest, however, was not a move to destroy press freedom but simply to rein in oligarchs; others will follow.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has long had reason to dislike Vladimir Gusinsky. Gusinsky's parasitic absorption of many of the Soviet Union's assets by legally dubious means helped degrade Russian power to where it is today. More recently, Gusinsky has backed Kremlin outsiders - such as the unruly Moscow mayor Yuri Luzhkov - against Russia's ruling elite.

Targeting Putin more personally, Gusinsky's media empire was one of the few sources of domestic criticism of the Chechen war - the issue that propelled Putin to power. Furthermore, one of Gusinsky's television shows, entitled “Kukly” or “The Puppets,” has lampooned Russian political figures for several years. Putin has not escaped Gusinsky's scathing comedic knife.

Gusinsky claims that it is this criticism - and the Putin puppet specifically - that triggered the tax police raid on Gusinsky's Media-MOST firm on May 11. Critics of the Kremlin say the same rationale lies behind Gusinsky's arrest.

But in the long-daggered world of Russian politics, seeking revenge for an annoying puppet is ridiculous. Putin must curb the power of the oligarchs in order to bring Russia's lucrative extraction industries under central control, a first step toward rooting corruption out of the Russian economy. Gusinksy controls the most extensive independent media in the country and is therefore in the best position to challenge any government program. It is logical that he is the first to fall.

With Media-MOST tamed, others will follow - and they know it. The day after Gusinsky's arrest, 17 of Russia's most influential businessmen sent a letter to Russia's prosecutor-general vouching for Gusinsky's “good behavior” and calling for his release. This solidarity is a far cry from their scathing attacks on each other only months previous.

Two signatories - Unified Energy Systems chief Anatoly Chubais and Rem Vyakhirev, the head of Russia's natural gas giant, Gazprom - are bitter enemies. As recently as a month ago they were clashing furiously over the future of their respective firms. Desperation, like politics, makes strange bedfellows.

Other signatories include Sibneft oil group head Yevgeny Schvidler, Interros Financial Group chief Vladimir Potanin and Alfa Group (Bank) chairman Mikhail Fridman. All now face a common threat from the Kremlin.

Even Boris Berezovsky, a long-time insider in Kremlin politics, characterized his view of the arrest as “sharply negative,” despite the fact that Berezovsky's own media holdings stand to gain the most from Gusinsky's absence. A president angered by a puppet certainly could not threaten the oligarch of oligarchs. A president intent on taming the oligarchs is another matter entirely.

Putin is far too pragmatic a leader to expend so much political capital simply to incapacitate an annoying puppet. Moreover, Putin has not moved against the entire press, just Gusinsky. A wider media crackdown would do nothing for Putin's goal of gathering Western economic aid. Putin will continue his crackdown until the oligarchs see things his way.

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