In Moscow, where there's smoke, there's political intrigue, or so say the owners of Kommersant, one of Russia's leading newspapers.
Fire inspectors shut down the newspaper today, and Kommersant's manager complained that they did so at the behest of Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov's administration. Kommersant will not publish Tuesday, its editors said, and is going to court to have the closure overturned.
"I am totally sure . . . that this is all organized by people close to the Moscow government," said Leonid Miloslavsky, Kommersant's general director. "For Luzhkov, those publications that do not openly support him are his enemies."
Because hundreds, if not thousands, of Moscow buildings lack even the rudiments of fire safety systems, the closing of Kommersant is an unusually severe sanction. As a symptom of the heat of Russia's political season, however, the affair seems normal.
It highlights the partisan role played by the country's main, Moscow-based media outlets and the risks they run in making enemies. All are in the hands of various politicians or financiers with close political connections. They are in fierce competition, and back different candidates in December's parliamentary elections and next year's presidential race.
Kommersant, for instance, was bought this summer by Boris Berezovsky, who has close ties to President Boris Yeltsin and his family. Berezovsky already controlled the Nezavisimaya Gazeta newspaper as well as a share of the ORT television station. For the past year, Kommersant, a business-oriented publication, has been Russia's most authoritative newspaper.
Luzhkov became a rival of Yeltsin, and therefore Berezovsky, through the recent creation of a powerful, anti-Yeltsin electoral bloc. He combined his own Moscow-based Fatherland party with a group of regional governors called All Russia and put Yevgeny Primakov, the popular former prime minister and presidential hopeful, at the alliance's head.
That made Luzhkov a potential presidential kingmaker, a role Yeltsin likes to reserve for himself. The president has anointed prime minister Vladimir Putin as his current heir apparent.
Luzhkov denied using the inspectors, who are under the control of a federal ministry, to do his bidding. "Having the widest possibilities in this sphere, we never use them against any publication," the mayor said. Interior Ministry fire officials said they have been warning Kommersant since May to install fire alarms, put up no-smoking signs and increase the number of fire extinguishers.
In this climate of intense rivalry, Kommersant is not alone in its complaints of official harassment. Luzhkov recently charged that the Kremlin had unleashed investigations of his supporters. The mayor has no difficulty getting his point of view across; he operates one television station and has interests in at least one city newspaper.
Not to be outdone, Berezovsky criticized media rivals for spreading a story that his offshore bank accounts were frozen by Swiss investigators. He said Vladimir Gusinsky, the owner of the NTV broadcasting company and Segodnya newspaper, spread the story. Gusinsky is an ally of Luzhkov.
For his part, Gusinsky charged that the Kremlin had unleashed tax investigations against him and NTV this summer for political reasons. The suspected goal is to bankrupt NTV and put it in the hands of a compliant owner, if Gusinsky refuses to abandon Luzhkov.