A Kremlin Crackdown

Vladimir Putin, who was sworn in as Russia's new president early last week, gets along well with most of the "oligarchs" who dominate the nation's economy. One exception is Vladimir Gusinsky, the founder of Russia's largest private media empire. Gusinsky's flagship television station, NTV, and his leading newspaper, Sevodnya, have severely criticized Putin and his predecessor, Boris Yeltsin, denouncing the war in Chechnya and pursuing stories of top-level corruption in the Kremlin. And just four days after Putin took an oath promising to uphold the Constitution, which guarantees freedom of the press, masked government agents toting automatic weapons stormed into the offices of Gusinsky's company, Media-Most. "When I protested," an employee said later, "a man in a mask told me: 'You have a choice--you can either wait in the cafeteria or lie on the floor in handcuffs'."

The assault team, including investigators from the FSB, the domestic successor to the Soviet KGB, searched the premises for documents and videotapes. First they said they were seeking evidence on the alleged misdeeds of a former Finance Ministry official. Then they said they were investigating Media-Most itself, looking into charges of privacy violations and possible tax irregularities. Gusinsky, who flew back from Israel to manage the crisis, accused Putin of using Soviet-era tactics. "It looks like everything is going backwards--the same masks, the same special services, the same witch hunting," he said.

Media-Most's headquarters were invaded once before, in 1994. That raid was ordered by Aleksandr Korzhakov, then chief of Kremlin security, in an apparent attempt to intimidate NTV, which had given unsympathetic coverage to the first Chechen war. The Media-Most empire--which includes the weekly news-magazine Itogi, published in cooperation with NEWSWEEK--also has supported one of Putin's chief rivals, Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov. Aleksandr Voloshin, the head of the presidential administration under both Yeltsin and Putin, has openly vowed to break up Gusinsky's media empire. The company claims the Kremlin is trying to force it out of business by putting pressure on Gazprom, a natural-gas giant partly owned by the state, to recall a $211 million loan to Media-Most. It also claims the Kremlin blocked its efforts to sell one of its subsidiaries, Most-Bank, to raise money for the Gazprom debt.

Putin himself had nothing to say about last week's raid. His office issued a statement insisting "the president strongly believes that freedom of the press is a cornerstone of democracy... but everyone must be equal under the law." Senior Kremlin aides said privately that the order for the raid didn't come from Putin. If so, the initiative most likely originated with the presidential administration or the FSB. That possibility made some people wonder who is really in charge of Putin's Russia.