To get Vladimir Putin elected president, Boris Berezovsky left no stone unhurled.
During the last campaign the enigmatic oligarch, who over the past decade has leveraged political favors into economic interests in auto sales, finance, energy and aluminum, eagerly turned his media empire over to Putin’s propagandists. No charge against Putin’s challengers was too fanciful for Berezovsky’s media: Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov plans to house tens of thousands of Chechen refugees in Moscow, they said, while pointing out the mayor’s strange physical resemblance to Monica Lewinsky. Economist Grigory Yavlinsky, said Berezovsky’s ORT television, is the darling of Moscow’s homosexuals and backs a gay agenda.
No doubt the Putin forces were satisfied at the time with Berezovsky’s grovel and fawn, but times have changed. The Kremlin’s attitude toward the media today is: Why rent when you can own?
The government’s arrest of media baron Vladimir Gusinsky in May was widely considered retaliation for the sharp attacks his Media Most group had aimed at Kremlin policies toward Chechnya and at high-level corruption. (Gusinsky, against whom charges have been dropped, now lives outside Russia and is reportedly negotiating the sale of his television holdings to Gazprom, the natural-gas monopoly.) But Berezovsky’s outlets were guilty of no such lese majesty.
Now the government, which owns 51 percent of Russian Public Television (ORT), wants Berezovsky, whose companies own the other 49 percent, to exchange his shares for debts owed to government agencies and state-owned banks. Berezovsky is fighting back. In an open letter to Putin, Berezovsky says he will transfer his ORT shares to a trust to be administered by prominent journalists and other well-known figures, including U.S.-based novelist Vasily Aksyonov and lawyer Genry Reznick. The trustees, Berezovsky says, will work without pay and after four years’ time will have an opportunity to buy into the company.
Berezovsky is not Russia’s only unlikely defender of freedom of the press. It was a Communist member of the State Duma, Leonid Maevsky, who revealed in a radio interview that the Kremlin’s proposed budget for 2001 contains a secret slush fund for media activities. A deputy finance minister confirmed the fund, and Press Minister Mikhail Lesin acknowledged that secret funds for media work have been hidden in defense and other budgets for several years.
Lesin said the secret funds are for “special propaganda measures” against Chechen terrorists and are not to be used against the Russian media. He would not disclose the size of the fund, but he said expenditures would be reported to the finance ministry and would be subject to review by the Audit Chamber, an independent agency.
Lesin is familiar with the Audit Chamber, which is reportedly about to open an investigation into the relationship between the state-owned broadcasting holding company VGTRK and Video International, a private company that Lesin founded and in which he is believed to retain a substantial interest. Video International has a monopoly on the sale of commercial time on state-controlled RTR and ORT television networks, in which VGTRK holds a majority stake. Lesin also served as deputy chief of VGTRK.