Publication: Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 154

The start of the fall political season is still several weeks away, but the mud is already flying between the Russian political elite’s two main power centers–the Kremlin inner circle on the one hand, and the new Fatherland-All Russia coalition, led by Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov and former Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov, on the other.

Perhaps the most convoluted controversy involves the newspaper “Kommersant.” The influential business daily failed to roll off the presses this morning after a decision late in the day August 20, reportedly taken by the Moscow city fire prevention service, to close the newspaper’s offices on the basis of fire safety violations. “Kommersant’s” new editor, Andrei Vasiliev, inaugurated his first day on the job yesterday with a news conference, during which he charged that the closure was a politically motivated step by the city government. Over the weekend, “Kommersant” general director Leonid Miloslavsky claimed that the fire inspectors who had inspected the newspaper’s offices on August 20 had said openly that their actions were politically motivated and taken at the behest of the Moscow mayor’s office.

Luzhkov called the charges “absolutely absurd,” while Boris Nikolsky, a Moscow city government vice premier, said that the main directorate of the federal Interior Ministry’s fire protection services, which is not part of the city government, took the decision to close “Kommersant.” Anatoly Giletich, who heads that directorate, likewise denied any political motivations, and said “Kommersant’s” offices were in violation of ten different fire regulations, including those requiring alarm and fire notification systems (Russian agencies, August 23; Moscow Times, August 24).

Given that a controlling stake in “Kommersant” was recently bought by the tycoon and Kremlin insider Boris Berezovsky, one of Luzhkov’s main foes, it is no surprise that the closure of the paper has become an instant political controversy. A number of leading institutions immediately rose to “Kommersant’s” defense. Perhaps not surprisingly, the government’s new Press Ministry, headed by Kremlin insider Mikhail Lesin, issued a statement calling on the city authorities to cancel the closure order, while the Russian magazine publisher’s guild denounced the closure as an “attack on the constitution of the Russian Federation.” Even the generally pro-Luzhkov Media-Most holding issued a statement yesterday calling on the appropriate officials to resolve the problem immediately, so that “Kommersant” can resume publishing (Russian agencies, August 23).

The controversy, however, is made all the murkier by the fact that the Interior Ministry’s fire protection service, not that of the city government, apparently issued the order to close the paper. Indeed, one editorial today speculated that Berezovsky may himself have been behind the move–as a way to revive the paper’s moral authority, which has been heading south since Berezovsky’s takeover. The editorial questioned whether Luzhkov would be so stupid as to turn “Kommersant” into a martyr (Moscow Times, July 24).

Radio station Ekho Moskvy reported today that the Moscow arbitration court will take up a complaint lodged by “Kommersant,” which is demanding that the closure decision be rescinded (Russian agencies, August 24).