Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 180

President Vladimir Putin sees the battle between Gazprom and Media-Most as a conflict between two “economic subjects”–to use his term–which must be adjudicated in court, and one in which he will not interfere. That, at least, is how his position was described by presidential press secretary Aleksei Gromov following a meeting earlier this year between the head of state and former Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev, a supporter of Media-Most. According to Gorbachev, Putin said he was “surprised” that Press Minister Mikhail Lesin had added his signature to the July 20 agreement between Gazprom-Media’s Alfred Kokh and Media-Most’s Vladimir Gusinsky. According to a stipulation in this agreement, known as Appendix 6, Gusinsky agreed to sell Media-Most for US$773 million in exchange for the Prosecutor General’s Office dropping criminal charges and a travel ban against him. Gorbachev quoted Putin as saying that he was “outraged” by Lesin’s behavior (Russian agencies, September 26).

This, of course, is not the first time that Putin has adopted a strategy of distancing himself from his subordinate’s actions: He took a similar approach, for example, to the arrest of Radio Liberty correspondent Andrei Babitsky and Babitsky’s subsequent transfer to unknown armed Chechens earlier this year. Of course, getting subordinates to carry out actions so that your own fingerprints will not be found is a time-honored tactic of Russian leaders. But it should be seen for what it probably is–a tactic. Indeed, as veteran Russian journalist Yevgenia Albats noted today, Alfred Kokh, who was appointed head of Gazprom-Media this year shortly after Putin’s presidential campaign, is a bitter enemy of Gusinsky and Media-Most. In 1997, when Kokh was Russia’s privatization chief, Media-Most’s outlets accused him of colluding with Oneksimbank, the winner of the tenders for Norilsk Nickel and Svyazinvest, Russia’s telecommunications holding company. President Boris Yeltsin subsequently fired Kokh. Thus, as Albats noted, it is likely that Kokh was put in as Gazprom-Media head to ensure the success of a Kremlin-inspired campaign against Media-Most (Moscow Times, September 28).

And while the Moscow rumor mill was dominated over the last week by talk that Lesin might be dismissed over his involvement in the battle between Gazprom and Media-Most, it now appears that the press minister has gotten off with little more than a slap on the wrist. During a meeting of the Russian cabinet today, Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov for a second time publicly upbraided Lesin for getting involved in a conflict between “economic subjects” (Kasyanov used the term Putin favors). This, however, appears to be the extent of Lesin’s punishment. That Lesin has avoided dismissal may have greater significance. Some observers said that Putin’s reaction to the scandal surrounding Lesin’s behavior would be an important indicator of the president’s relations with the “Family”–the group of Yeltsin-era Kremlin insiders who continue to wield varying degrees of power and of which Lesin is a key member. The fact that Putin did not avail himself of the opportunity to get rid of a key “Family” member suggests that the group–or, at least, some of its members–continue to wield significant influence inside the Kremlin.