READING THE PAPERS LIKE TEA LEAVES

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“Vladimir Putin has shown in the Media Most saga how his policy will differ from that of Boris Yeltsin,” according to Vremya MN’s appraisal of the main event of the past week. The new president has started creating his own pyramid of power, and many observers fear that this Putin pyramid will completely suppress freedom of speech in Russia, for one thing.

But Vremya MN asserts that President Putin is setting himself an entirely different goal: it is not the public which stands to lose freedom of speech, but the oligarchs, “who have been using this freedom exclusively for their own benefit”.

If we follow this logic, the next in line after Media Most would be the ORT network, to be removed from the control of tycoon Boris Berezovsky.

The immediate pretext for imposing order, says the paper, will be the financial collapse of the companies rather than the political unorthodoxy of their owners: “Indeed, strictly speaking, both Media Most and ORT have found themselves in this difficult situation because they have borrowed money they will never be able to repay… If, in fact, the state owns and supports both TV networks, then they both should work in the interests of the state.”

On the other hand, the paper continues, the main issue remains unclear: “If the oligarchs are deprived of freedom of speech, then who will continue to enjoy that freedom?” And what exactly is freedom of speech in a country with an “ultra-presidential regime”?

In another article Vremya MN emphasizes that there is little sense in considering the action against Media Most as an attack against the opposition media. Thus, the NTV network which is part of the Media Most holding “is, in principle, a very convenient opposition, it is fairly liberal and intelligent”. In other words, NTV does not prevent the powers-that-be from attaining their goals. The paper states that the affair with Media Most should be perceived as a warning to the corporation’s owner, Vladimir Gusinsky. President Putin is only fulfilling his pre-election promise to “keep all the oligarchs equally far from the Kremlin”. Especially since the majority of the oligarchs have already accepted the new rules of the game, and prefer to keep a low profile. The only two oligarchs left who still “claim the right to influence the president’s decision-making process” are Berezovsky and Gusinsky.

Vremya MN maintains that “Kremlin insiders speak quite categorically about the fate of these two oligarchs: ‘We will exile them both.'” Therefore, Vremya MN has no doubt that the police searches at Media Most are only the beginning of “a campaign to neutralize the unruly oligarchs”.

This viewpoint is shared by Vedomosti: “The public wanted Putin to counteract the oligarchs, and Putin did promise to do it, so now just deal with it!”

The paper believes that “the mind-boggling developments of the situation with Media Most” do not have (at least, not yet) anything to do with encroachments on freedom of speech, and are nothing but a crusade against the oligarchs.

On the other hand, if the situation does not develop further than the affair with Gusinsky, it would mean that the current advocates of Media Most are right, “and in that case we will witness a struggle against freedom of speech, revenge, police arbitrariness, and political pressure”. In that case “all decent people” will be obliged to support “Gusinsky, a fighter for the truth” against “the satrap Putin, the strangler Voloshin, and the intriguer Berezovsky”.

It is obvious that, firstly, the paper is warning its readers against making any hasty appraisals of the action against Media Most, and secondly, that it is trying to convince those readers that the said action, which is aimed against specific oligarchs (or at least one of them), will in no way affect the interests of other Russians.

Segodnya, which is part of Gusinsky’s holding, is certain that the order to search Media Most’s premises was issued by the state, “a power which does not like the fact that Media Most’s media refuse to toe the line”.

The question arises, continues the paper, as to what type of state is currently being formed: “Is it the type of state in which all will really be equal before the law? Or one in which some will be more equal than others, and economic arguments will be settled with the help of police task-forces?”

Segodnya publishes a selection of quotes from the foreign press on the Media Most situation. “The Washington Post”, “The Daily Telegraph”, “The Guardian”, “Die Berliner Zeitung”, and other influential Western papers and magazines consider the action against Media Most to be a violation of democratic norms. They remind President Putin of his own words about the need for a “dictatorship of law” and about his readiness to take responsibility for the situation in Russia. Apart from that, Segodnya quotes a letter sent to President Putin by Robert Menar, Secretary General of Journalists Sans Frontiers, an influential international organization. In the letter, President Putin is called on “to put an end to the practice of searches, and start to observe the obligations to provide for freedom of the press which Russia undertook before the Council of Europe”.

Leonid Radzikhovsky, a Segodnya political observer, is sure that the attack against Media Most is nothing more than “another foolishness” on the part of the FSB, General Prosecutor’s Office, or other federal departments. The identity of those who committed this foolish act is immaterial to Radzikhovsky: “Well, they are still living in the happy era before the invention of radio (not to mention TV), they believe naively that it is possible to stop information flow by fists and batons.” Radzikhovsky notes that the only positive element of the entire Media Most saga is that the new Russian president has been offered an opportunity to gain advantage for himself from somebody else’s stupidity: “Putin can now play the role of protector of freedom of speech, and then the entire ridiculous incident will improve the image of post-Yeltsin Russia rather than worsen it.”

Nezavisimaya Gazeta notes that the attack against Media Most was “evidently poorly planned from the viewpoint of public opinion’s possible resistance to the actions of law enforcement agencies”. The paper states: “Although Gusinsky’s influence on the Kremlin and the government has by now considerably weakened, it still needs to be reckoned with.” The paper considers Gusinsky’s international contacts to be the greatest source of danger for his opponents. Nezavisimaya Gazeta reminds its readers that Gusinsky is vice president of the World Jewish Congress and chair of the Russian Jewish Congress. In addition, he is the only representative of Russian business who has been granted an audience with French President Jacques Chirac. That is why, the paper believes, the Western media are sure to start talking about “the political nature of the grudges the Russian government bears against the only opposition TV network in Russia”. And against the West’s general disapproval of Russia’s actions in Chechnya, and “an evident weakness of Russia’s position on restructuring its foreign debt”, such an attitude by public opinion may be used “for making decisions undesirable for Moscow”.

In one of its later issues, after the president’s press service had released statements regarding the Media Most scandal, Nezavisimaya Gazeta noted graciously: “One can hardly believe that President Putin and his closest confidants had not been informed beforehand about the impending searches in Media Most’s offices.”

In an article published by Novaya Gazeta Andrei Piontkovsky quotes one of President Putin’s statements which contributed to his enormous popularity: “Those who happen to insult us will not last three days.” It has previously been unclear, Piontkovsky writes, which day one should begin counting from. “December 31? March 26?” As it turned out, it was May 7, inauguration day. “Three days after the inauguration, police lieutenant-colonels, stunned by the power they had suddenly been entrusted with, invited the Russian people to attend the execution of freedom of speech in this country.”

In the same issue of Novaya Gazeta Yevgeny Savostianov expresses the opinion that the operation against Media Most is nothing other than self-assertion by the security services: “They are demonstrating to themselves that they are powerful. The election of Putin, a KGB officer, as president was perceived by the security services as ‘their’ man coming to power. Well, now that he is ‘theirs’, it means the new era is also theirs!” Savostyanov voices the opinion that this country is slowly drifting along the path of “a senseless Pinochet”. “In other words, our economy is liberalized, but the possibility remains that independent civil institutions may be wound up and closed down. This is a deadlock of development.” Another obvious point is that this ridiculous operation will inevitably have a negative impact on the image of President Putin.

However, the magazine Itogi maintains that President Putin’s approval rating still remains fairly high: the new president has not yet done anything that might “alienate part of the electorate.” It is not by chance that prior to the presidential election, when enumerating the would-be president’s positive features, poll respondents tended to mention caution first.

Meanwhile, the magazine writes: “The impression is created that President Putin does not fully understand what business in general a president should handle.” Especially since he still has no team of his own; one of the consequences of Putin’s skyrocketing career ascent is that he had no time to gather around himself a team of economic and administrative aides. Therefore, even after his victory in the presidential election, and even after the inauguration, he is doomed to remain “a puppet in the skillful hands of the Kremlin manipulators”.

In reality, despite expectations, the change of power has not resulted in a change of the mechanism of political decision-making: “The same people remain in the same posts they held under President Yeltsin; and, as before, are ‘settling questions’ and ‘solving problems’. President Putin has readily granted the right to make political decisions to ‘the old guard of intriguers’.”

As for the president’s protracted silence, Itogi explains it by the simple assumption that “Putin still has nothing to say to his electorate”.

Alexander Bekker, a Vedomosti observer, holds the opinion that the discreditation of Herman Gref and his national development program “has become an important element of the struggle for power in post-Yeltsin Russia.” Everything began with Berezovsky’s February interview, in which Gref was called “a shallow person too weak to play the role of the president’s court strategist”. Early drafts of Gref’s program started being published in the press, and Gref himself was subjected to strong criticism.

In addition, Bekker continues, Gref was accused of thinking up impracticable schemes: his program stipulated GDP growth of 8% to 10% per year, whereas Mikhail Kasianov viewed the Economics Ministry’s program, which is based on growth of 4% to 5.5% per year, as more realistic. In the end Gref gave up and adjusted his calculations with those of the government, thus putting in doubt his reputation as “the major economic strategist”. “By deposing Gref, the Yeltsin elite ingrained in the federal structures prevented a radical renovation of the higher echelon of power,” Bekker states. “Strangers were pushed into the background, although it appears that Putin counted on fresh blood among his aides.” It became clear that the Gref team had been too busy working on economic tasks set by President Putin to realize in time that it had been outflanked. Kasianov, “supported by the Presidential Administration, the ministries, and a group of Duma lobbyists headed by Yury Maslyukov”, came to the fore. Vedomosti asserts that Kasianov owes his success to the oligarchs’ support.

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