Publication: Fortnight in Review Volume: 6 Issue: 10

?Meanwhile, there were indications that the Kremlin’s “consolidation” plans extend beyond atmospherics and symbolism. The newspaper Kommersant published what it said was a Kremlin scheme to create a new “political department” that would “really control the political and social processes in the Russian Federation, and also in the countries of the near abroad” and work in tandem with the Federal Security Service (FSB). Vlast, the weekly magazine, claimed that the presidential administration planned to limit the power of regional leaders by ensuring that regional governors would no longer automatically become members of the Federation Council, the upper chamber of Russia’s parliament. This would rob the governors of parliamentary immunity from criminal prosecution. On top of all this, the newspaper Segodnya published parts of a plan by the Center for Strategic Research, Putin’s think-tank. It included a proposal to create new “federal districts” headed by presidential representatives who, the paper claimed, would be drawn from the FSB. The plan also called for the creation of a territorial “National Guard” directly subordinated to the president.

Actions, however, speak louder than words, and a concrete indication of the Kremlin’s intentions came as the fortnight wound to a close. The target was not the governors, but the press. Just four days after Putin hailed Russia as a “a truly modern democratic state,” commandos from the FSB, tax police and anti-economic crimes unit, donning ski-masks and armed with automatic weapons, accompanied investigators from the Prosecutor General’s Office in a raid on the Moscow headquarters of Media-Most, the private media holding founded by the tycoon Vladimir Gusinsky. Investigators seized documents, computer files and videotapes from the company, which includes NTV television and the Segodnya newspaper. FSB officials claimed the raid was part of a criminal investigation of Media-Most’s security service, which, they alleged, had carried out illegal eavesdropping and revealed bank secrets. Media-Most officials insisted that the raid was an attempt to intimidate the company’s outlets, in retaliation for investigations they had carried out into high-level official corruption, including within the FSB. The FSB categorically denied any political motive or attempt to muzzle the press.

Yet the incident reeked of politics. The tax police had raided Media-Most’s publishing house last year, after its outlets criticized the Yeltsin Kremlin while going easy on its rivals, Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov and former Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov. There was also NTV’s persistent criticism of the Chechen war, of Vladimir Putin and, perhaps most important, of the tycoon Boris Berezovsky and his ally, Kremlin chief of staff Aleksandr Voloshin.

Russian politicians across the political spectrum, from Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov to Union of Right-Wing Forces leader Sergei Kirienko to Yabloko leader Grigory Yavlinsky, immediately criticized the Media-Most raid. Russian Public Television, the 51-percent state-owned television company controlled by Berezovsky, cheered it on. Putin’s initial reaction to the raid, meanwhile, was to ignore it altogether, in favor of a chummy meeting with American media mogul Ted Turner.