The big news of the fortnight was the arrest of Most-Media chief Vladimir Gusinsky, his incarceration in Butyrka (Moscow’s notorious remand prison) and his subsequent release. The arrest happened when the media magnate dropped by the Prosecutor General’s Office to answer questions connected with the May 11 raid by prosecutors and government security agents on Media-Most’s headquarters. Specifically, the prosecutors had invited Gusinsky to answer questions about where he had been storing ammunition for a gun he had been awarded by the Kremlin several years earlier. The tycoon suddenly found himself incarcerated on suspicion of embezzling state funds in connection with the 1998 privatization of Russkoye Video, a St. Petersburg-based company.
Few observers took the specific charges against Gusinsky seriously in and of themselves. His arrest was clearly the culmination of his media outlets’ long-running battle with the Kremlin administration and its chief, Aleksandr Voloshin, with the group of Yeltsin-era insiders dubbed the “Family,” and with President Vladimir Putin. The head of state, who was on an official swing through Europe at the time of Gusinsky’s arrest, claimed he had no prior knowledge of the prosecutor’s plans and added that the Prosecutor General’s Office was an independent agency not subordinated to the Kremlin. Putin also claimed he had tried to reach Vladimir Ustinov, the prosecutor general, but had been unable to do so. That led the tabloid newspaper Moskovsky komsomolets to announce that it had put up ninety or so dollars and purchased Ustinov a mobile phone. Most other observers were equally skeptical about Putin’s claims to have been out of the loop and of his sudden reverence for prosecutorial independence. Whatever the case, the imprisonment of Gusinsky, who also heads the Russian Jewish Congress, a branch of the World Jewish Congress, was protested by Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, U.S. Jewish leaders, more than fifty members of the U.S. Congress and President Bill Clinton. Within a few days, Gusinsky was released from Butyrka after agreeing to sign a pledge not to leave Moscow while the charges against him were being investigated.