Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 119

Vladimir Gusinsky, the Media-Most founder and chief, was freed from Moscow’s Butyrka Prison on June 16 after being formally charged with large-scale embezzlement in connection with an existing criminal investigation into the St. Petersburg-based company Russkoye Video. Gusinsky, who had been arrested and detained four days earlier, was freed after signing an agreement that he would not leave Moscow while the investigation was underway. If found guilty, Gusinsky could receive up to ten years in prison and his property, including Media-Most, could be confiscated (Vedomosti, June 19). A newspaper noted that the Prosecutor General’s Office could re-imprison the media magnate at any time, and Igor Malashenko, Media-Most’s first deputy chief, warned that the Kremlin would continue in its attempts to put the media holding under its control (Moskovsky komsomolets, Russian agencies, June 17). Meanwhile, Gusinsky’s lawyers have vowed to overturn the criminal case against him (Russian agencies, June 17). Gusinsky’s release from prison came one day after President Vladimir Putin made a statement that Gusinsky’s arrest was “excessive.” Putin reiterated this during a joint news conference with German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder the day of Gusinsky’s release. The media tycoon’s arrest sparked a wave of criticism abroad, including from U.S. Jewish leaders and members of Congress. A delegation from the U.S.-Russia Business Council postponed a trip to Moscow because of it. Likewise, public figures from across Russia’s political spectrum, ranging from United Energy Systems chief Anatoly Chubais to Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov, criticized it. Only ultranationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky approved the action, and called Gusinsky’s release a “disgrace” (Russian agencies, Reuters, June 16).

Chubais is among those who have been the most critical of Gusinsky’s arrest, saying that it was the work of those who would like to turn Russia into a “semi-fascist state” (NTV, June 18). In a separate interview, he called the treatment of Gusinsky an act of “intimidation” aimed at “those who do not agree with the powers-that-be” (RTR, June 18). Chubais, in so many words, admitted that he is not a great fan of Gusinsky, given that he was the target of criticism and even kompromat from Media-Most in 1997, when his ally Vladimir Potanin, who then headed Oneksimbank, won a hotly contested and highly controversial tender for a quarter of Svyazinvest, Russia’s telecommunications holding company. Gusinsky was then allied with the tycoon Boris Berezovsky against Potanin and a consortium of foreign investors that included George Soros. But while Chubais is now casting his defense of Gusinsky as a matter of principle and concern for the fate of Russian democracy, his motivations may be more prosaic and concrete. A newspaper reported over the weekend that immediately after Gusinsky’s arrest, there were rumors that Chubais would be arrested the very next day, and that a close Chubais aide reached by telephone was “in hysteria” over the prospect (Russia Journal, June 17). While these reports remain speculative, it is worth noting that Zhirinovsky claimed over the weekend that he had seen a list of 100 top politicians, officials and businessmen slated for criminal prosecution (RTR, June 18). Likewise, Gusinsky himself said in an interview that he had information that Vagit Alekperov, head of LUKoil, and several top officials in the Yukos oil company might be arrested in the near future (Newsweek, June 18).