President Vladimir Putin, now in Spain, may have wanted it done while he was out of the country. Yesterday the office of the prosecutor general confirmed the arrest of Vladimir Gusinsky, head of Russia’s only national independent television network. As of this writing, Gusinsky has not been charged, but reports indicate authorities are preparing to accuse him of embezzlement.

It would take a superhuman suspension of judgment not to believe this is a political arrest for political offenses. Properties belonging to Gusinsky’s Media Most company include NTV television, Ekho Moskvy radio, Itogi weekly news magazine and Segodnya daily newspaper. They have long been critical of Kremlin policies, in particular the conduct of the war in Chechnya, and they have exposed and attacked high-level corruption. On another level, Gusinsky is a business rival of Kremlin insider and State Duma deputy Boris Berezovsky. The two struggled for control of state assets undergoing conversion to private ownership, with Berezovsky more frequently coming out on top. The animosity between the two is undisguised.

Gusinsky’s clout as one of Russia’s new tycoons faded when the collapse of the ruble in August 1998, destroyed the Most Bank that was the foundation of his business empire. He surprised many observers in the West as in Russia by staking out a strong public position for freedom of the press, even as the Kremlin’s pressure on his operations increased. In recent months, he has faced calls on loans from state-owned banks, increased fees for broadcast frequencies, and threats from state-controlled investor Gazprom (which owns 35 percent of NTV). Last week Gusinsky said that in late 1999, he refused an offer of $100 million from a top Kremlin official to get out of the media business, at least during the election campaigns.

On May 11, armed federal agents in ski masks raided Media Most offices in Moscow, seizing documents and computers. That action led Gusinsky’s deputy at Media Most, Igor Malashenko, to write in the Washington Post: “Acts of intimidation by government agencies send chilling signals to the Russian journalistic community, and are intended, among other things, to cause journalists to practice self-censorship when criticism of Russian authorities is the issue.” As Voltaire wrote of England, “In this country it is useful from time to time to kill an admiral to encourage the others.”

Gusinsky’s arrest was probably no great surprise to Gusinsky, who is neither a saint nor an innocent. He played rough with rough opponents. Unfortunately it is also no surprise to others who have watched the slow retreat of the Russian press, so briefly free, into self-censorship and government control.