Putin shows his KGB face with arrest

Posted: Thursday, June 15, 2000

The following editorial appeared in today's edition of The Washington Post:

The most recent defining act of Russia's new president, Vladimir Putin, is more Soviet than democratic. In an apparent effort to intimidate the press, Mr. Putin has engaged in police-state tactics so crude that even his severest critics seem stunned. For those who wonder whether Mr. Putin's Russia will move toward joining civilized Europe, and whether it will nurture the legal protections that could attract investment and encourage prosperity, the latest news is ominous.

On Tuesday Mr. Putin's prosecutors summoned Russia's leading media tycoon, ostensibly simply to answer some questions about an ongoing case. When Vladimir Gusinsky appeared, without lawyers, the government threw him into the Moscow hellhole known as Butyrka Prison. He remains there, though he has not yet been formally charged with any crime.

The case has significance beyond the rights of any one person. Mr. Gusinsky heads a media company that owns the only Russian television network not under Kremlin control. The company also owns a radio station and publishes a daily newspaper and a weekly magazine (the last in partnership with Newsweek, which is owned by The Washington Post Co.). All of these properties have challenged official orthodoxy by reporting on official corruption and on Mr. Putin's savage war in Chechnya. The arrest will be seen, and no doubt was intended, as an attempt to silence President Putin's critics. ``There is a pattern here, and we have seen it for some time,'' U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott told The Washington Post Wednesday. ``It has a look and feel to it that does not resonate rule of law. It resonates muscle; it resonates power; it resonates intimidation.''

Some Russian officials have presented the arrest as a normal, even commendable, sign of Mr. Putin's determination to fight corruption and establish a ``rule of law.'' Mr. Gusinsky is one of a band of Russian businessmen who became wealthy after the Soviet Union's dissolution in 1991 in part by exploiting close ties to those in power. Whether a plausible case can be made against Mr. Gusinsky or any of the other oligarchs is something we cannot judge. But that Mr. Putin's government should choose as its first target the only businessman who has dared challenge Mr. Putin (and by far not the wealthiest of the oligarchs) shows that this affair is not about the rule of law.

Mr. Putin's KGB background is widely known, but when he ascended to power, many analysts expected him to wield power with some subtlety. The audacity of the government's assault is almost as stunning as the assault itself. The arrest is a slap at President Clinton, who recently in Moscow urged Mr. Putin to respect freedom of the press and who chose to speak on Mr. Gusinsky's radio station. With how much spine will Mr. Clinton and other Western leaders who have been even more eager to embrace Mr. Putin, such as Britain's Tony Blair, now respond? Many Russians will be watching.

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