Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 94

Some observers have speculated that the raid on Media-Most was a “provocation” against President Vladimir Putin–an attempt to make him look bad and put him in a difficult spot just four days after his inauguration. That theory was put forward yesterday by Sergei Karaganov, head of the Council on Foreign and Defense Policies, as well as Boris Federov, who served as Russia’s finance minister in the early 1990s and its tax minister for a brief period in 1998. “Somebody is doing Putin a bad service,” Federov said yesterday. “If Putin really wanted to annihilate Media-Most it would be much better for him to go by the book. All he would have to do is to make sure all the loans to the company were called in at the same time and [Media-Most founder Vladimir] Gusinsky would be forced to sell his empire.” Indeed, Media-Most owes more than US$200 million to the Gazprom natural gas monopoly alone, and Gazprom, which owns a thirty percent stake in NTV, has threatened to take Media-Most to court over the debt if it is not paid off by the end of this month (Moscow Times, May 12). Earlier this year Gazprom head Rem Vyakhirev threatened to disinvest in NTV over what he characterized as its “inappropriate” criticism of the war in Chechnya (see the Monitor, February 17).

On the other hand, the strategy of keeping at arm’s length actions you in fact approve of has been traditional for both Russian and Soviet leaders: “If only the Tsar knew” is a favored ironic Russian phrase. Putin, in any case, has not reacted to the Media-Most raid, preferring to meet yesterday with American media mogul Ted Turner. This is similar to the approach–or nonapproach–he took toward the travails of Radio Liberty correspondent Andrei Babitsky earlier this year.

It is also interesting to note that the raid on Media-Most and the accusations that its security service engaged in eavesdropping is the virtual mirror image of what happened in early 1999, when law-enforcement agents, reportedly at the instigation of then Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov, raided the headquarters of the Sibneft oil company. The authorities at the time charged that Atoll, a security firm founded by Boris Berezovsky that shares offices with Sibneft, had eavesdropped on leading VIPs, including Boris Yeltsin’s family (see the Monitor, February 4, 1999). Likewise, on the eve of this year’s presidential election, Russian Public Television (ORT), the 51-percent state-owned channel reportedly controlled by Berezovsky, reported that Media-Most founder Gusinsky held an Israeli passport (see the Monitor, March 23, 27). In 1996, Berezovsky was forced to admit that he held an Israeli passport, after various media reported it.