Strange Bedfellows

Vladimir Gusinsky and Boris Berezovsky, two of Russia's richest men, have never been chummy. On the contrary, they are known as ruthless rivals (a former Kremlin bodyguard, Aleksandr Korzhakov, once claimed that Berezovsky asked him to have Gusinsky whacked). But powerful enemies sometimes have short memories, particularly when faced with a more resourceful foe. These days Gusinsky and Berezovsky are engaged in a common battle, and both have come to the United States to drum up support against their new adversary: President Vladimir Putin, the colorless ex-KGB agent who wants to reshape Russia in his own image.

Last week Berezovsky was in New York on a charm offensive that took him to the august Council on Foreign Relations and other gatherings of policy-shapers. The PR campaign followed a similar U.S. tour by Gusinsky. The message? "Actions against me and against my main rival in the media business," Berezovsky wrote in The New York Times on Friday, "are only the most visible signs of authoritarian retrenchment." For starters, the oligarchs argue, Putin aims to gain control of the country's three nationwide TV networks. One of the networks, RTR, is already in the hands of the Russian government, but the other two are controlled by Gusinsky and Berezovsky.

Self-interest aside, the moguls have a strong case. Putin has repeatedly expressed disdain for his critics in the media. Most recently, when 118 sailors died aboard the submarine Kursk after a catastrophic accident and a bungled rescue effort, Putin blamed the angry public reaction on "television." Putin's government has begun resorting to outright intimidation, according to Berezovsky and Gusinsky. Berezovsky recently claimed that the Kremlin had threatened to jail him unless he divested himself of his 49 percent stake in the ORT network. He tried to dodge that threat by transferring his shares to a trust controlled by "independent-minded" journalists. And Russian police jailed Gusinsky last summer, releasing him only in return for a written promise to sell his shares in the badly indebted Media-Most conglomerate to Gazprom, a creditor company largely owned by the state. Last week Gazprom accused Gusinsky of reneging on that agreement, and prosecutors threatened to open a new case. "Like that guy said in 'The Godfather'--'This is only business'," says Gazprom executive Alfred Kokh. "Nothing personal." Russian journalists, not to mention two tough oligarchs, find little consolation in that assurance.