Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 117

What President Vladimir Putin had hoped would be a triumphant visit to the West got off to a rough start yesterday when he was thrown on the defensive by the outpouring of press attention devoted to the arrest of Russian media magnate Vladimir Gusinsky, the timing of which could not have been worse (see the Monitor, June 14). It came on the eve of what Putin clearly intends to be a high-profile visit to Germany. The news broke on his second day in Spain. After concluding his talks with a large group of Spanish businessmen in Madrid, Putin traveled to Berlin late yesterday.

For Western observers of the new “Putin-era” Russia, Gusinsky’s arrest appeared to carry three distinct messages–related to the three different respects in which Gusinsky has come to wield influence in Russia. Unfortunately for Putin, none of those messages reflects well on Moscow. For one, the arrest of Gusinsky the millionaire and successful entrepreneur sends a chilling signal to Western businessmen and investors who have been looking for evidence that the new Putin government will make Russia a safer and more friendly place to do business. Indeed, the effort to woo Western businesses was, according to Russian reports, to be the central mission of Putin’s visits to Spain and Germany. That was substantiated by Putin’s meeting yesterday with more than 100 leading Spanish industrialists, during which the Russian president tried to make the case that his administration will do the sorts of things that Western businessmen most want to see, like the uniform enforcement of laws, the streamlining of the judicial system and the cutting of taxes to reduce capital outflows. Even at this meeting, however, Putin was put on the spot with a question about the Gusinsky arrest–one to which he was able to offer only a weak response (Reuters, AP, June 14; The Guardian, June 15).

Gusinsky’s arrest was also worrying to foreign observers for its more obvious human rights implications. Gusinsky’s media outlets have been critical of the Putin government, not least for its brutal conduct of the war in Chechnya, and are well recognized in the West as the last major independent media voice in Russia. Gusinsky’s arrest, therefore, strengthens suspicions that the administration of the former KGB official is less than sympathetic toward an independent media. The arrest appears also to reinforce a pattern of official intimidation begun last month when Russian security agents raided the Moscow headquarters of Gusinsky’s Media-Most.

The impact of Gusinsky’s arrest was important in this regard because recent weeks have seen the Putin government’s most egregious trampling of human rights–Russia’s war in the Caucasus–fall slowly into the background as European governments looked to mend fences with Moscow. The reemergence of human rights as an issue tends to undermine Moscow’s abilities to push its agenda in other areas. Although this latest incident may prove not to be a debilitating setback for Moscow diplomatically, it will hardly strengthen Putin’s efforts to boost Russian-European ties or to push Moscow’s proposal for a European missile defense system over U.S. plans for a national missile defense. That, along with pleas for Western investment, had been expected to top Putin’s agenda on this European trip.

Finally, Gusinsky’s arrest raises new questions about official anti-Semitism in Russia and could complicate relations with Israel, and with the United States as well. Indeed, various Israeli officials reacted quickly yesterday to Gusinsky’s detention. Interior Minister Natan Sharansky, a former Soviet dissident, called for Gusinsky’s release and said that the Russian magnate’s status as head of the Russian Jewish Congress and as a senior official in the World Jewish Congress made the arrest particularly sensitive. The speaker of Israel’s parliament, Avraham Burg, spoke in a similar fashion, saying that the arrest of Gusinsky hearkens back to the Soviet period and a possible “saddening retreat to another era of pre-Perestroika that we would rather leave deep in the dust of history.” Two other Israeli lawmakers, meanwhile, each of them also immigrants from Russia, have reportedly collected dozens of signatures from other legislators and are asking Burg to ensure that Gusinsky’s rights are protected (AP, UPI, June 14).

Back in Madrid yesterday, a top Media-Most official attempted to keep the heat on Putin over Gusinsky’s arrest. Igor Malashenko, deputy chairman of Media-Most, held a news conference of his own in the Spanish capital in which he charged that the arrest of Gusinsky was “100 percent politically motivated” and an “authoritarian attempt… to silence the opposition.” Malashenko also vowed to follow Putin to Germany and to make his case once again, this time to reporters in Berlin (UPI, June 14).

For Putin, who was making his first visit to the West on an official basis and was also accompanied for the first time by his wife Ludmilla, the recent turn of events must have been disconcerting. Reports suggested that the Kremlin had chosen Spain for Putin’s visit because of the Spanish government’s relatively mild reaction to Russia’s war in Chechnya. In addition, it was believed that Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov, who is traveling with Putin, was sufficiently well connected in Spain to ensure that the presidential visit was a smooth one. Ivanov was Moscow’s ambassador to Spain from 1991 until 1994, and spent many years in the Spanish capital (Reuters, AFP, June 13). In Germany, meanwhile, Putin was hoping to capitalize on his fluent ability in German–sharpened during his time as a KGB official in the former DDR–and on Berlin’s stiff opposition to U.S. missile defense plans. Those two factors will probably still work in Putin’s favor, but it seems likely that his credibility will take something of a hit as a result of the latest events in Moscow.