Armed men wearing camouflage garb and black ski masks raided the offices of Russian media magnate Vladimir Gusinsky today in an operation that company officials said was aimed at intimidating Russia's leading independent television and news media company.
The general prosecutor's office announced that the highly unusual action was carried out in connection with a criminal case that concerns bank secrets and violations of privacy and confidentiality of correspondence. Later, officials said that the raids were aimed at Gusinsky's private security service but offered conflicting explanations about who carried out the raids and why.
The raid raised doubts about President Vladimir Putin's pledge in his inaugural address Sunday to defend Russia's young democracy. Skeptics say Putin, a career KGB officer, has demonstrated little understanding or support for some aspects of democracy, such as allowing criticism of the Kremlin or the war in Chechnya.
Executives of Media-Most, the holding company for Gusinsky's media empire, charged that the raid was a retaliation for critical reporting about the government and the war with Chechnya by NTV television and the newspaper Sevodnya, which are part of the Media-Most group.
NTV, a commercial station, is the leading national independent television outlet. Of the other leading stations, RTR is state owned, while ORT is partially state-owned but largely controlled by business magnate Boris Berezovsky, who has been at odds with Gusinsky. Most Russian newspapers and magazines are owned by a small group of tycoons, including Gusinsky.
Gusinsky has been under financial pressure lately. The Washington Post reported Sunday that Putin and his chief of staff, Alexander Voloshin, intervened recently to block Gusinsky's planned sale of Most Bank to a state-owned bank in an effort to raise cash. Putin did not comment on today's raid; in recent political campaigns, he let others orchestrate public attacks on his rivals while claiming he had nothing to do with such tactics.
"For a long time, Media-Most outlets have been causing the dissatisfaction of the authorities by their publications, by their coverage first of all of the second Chechen war and by their investigations of corruption in the higher echelons of power," said Igor Malashenko, first deputy chairman of the media group. The raid, he said, was "vengeance, as 'punishment' for already published materials and, on the other hand, as an act of intimidation."
Malashenko said, "It is very difficult for me to imagine" that the raid was undertaken "without a green light from the top." He added, "Beginning with last summer, Voloshin has not hid his attempts to put the NTV company under his control."
Gusinsky, rushing back to Moscow from a trip to Israel, said the raid, in which his personal offices were searched, threatened a return to the Soviet past. "If they start telling you again what to show and how to show it, and the audience is told what songs to like and whom to love or for whom to vote, then I think we will return to the past."
The armed men who carried out the raid barred entry and exit from three buildings and herded employees into a cafeteria while they carried out searches. It was reminiscent of a similar but more violent assault on Gusinsky's offices in 1994 by a group of unidentified armed men. It later emerged that President Boris Yeltsin's security service had dispatched the gunmen to intimidate Gusinsky.
Leading politicians charged that today's raid was an attack on the news media. Former Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev said: "This smells strongly of provocation . . . against the independent mass media. This is very serious."
Sergei Kiriyenko, a former prime minister and head of the Union of Right Forces, a pro-reform party in parliament, said: "What is happening to NTV today is a rather public act of intimidation . . . and this is a most dangerous thing."
Mikhail Berger, editor of Sevodnya, said the raid was an act of revenge for an article it published April 26 that questioned the private business dealings of a deputy director of the Federal Security Service. Berger said he had heard the newspaper would be attacked in retaliation for the article and that he had sent Putin, a former director of the security service, a letter asking him to intervene. He received no response, he said.
Official explanations for the raid were conflicting. While some of the men involved wore badges reading "tax police," the tax police said they were not in charge. Alexander Zdanovich, spokesman for the Federal Security Service, denied that his agency was seeking revenge against Sevodnya. He said the raid was aimed at wiretapping and bugging equipment present in the Media-Most building.