25 May 2004
The European Court of Human Rights condemned the government last week for using a politically motivated criminal case to compel Vladimir Gusinsky to sign over his media empire, including the television station NTV.
When President Vladimir Putin took office, it was clear that meaningful reform would only become possible when the oligarchs' media empires, which were making a living by blackmailing pretty much the entire political and business establishment, were finally neutralized. It was equally clear that these empires, especially Gusinsky's Kremlin-hostile Media-MOST, were doomed. They were insolvent and unattractive to investors.
The simplest and most strictly legal way for the government to proceed in this situation was for Putin to annul the decree, issued by Boris Yeltsin, that bypassed normal procedure and granted NTV a broadcasting license. A decree annulling the license would have had equal legal force, but as Yeltsin's successor, Putin did not go this route.
It would have been equally simple for Putin to take no action at all. In all likelihood Gazprom would have taken over Media-MOST in a few months anyway to recoup Gusinsky's enormous outstanding debt to the gas giant.
Instead the regime pursued a two-pronged strategy that was as convoluted as it was ineffective. First, the Prosecutor General's Office launched a criminal investigation against Gusinsky for business transgressions that bore little relation to the real source of the Kremlin's consternation.
Then the government tried to buy Gusinsky off. This initiative is thought to have originated with then-Press Minister Mikhail Lesin. It strikes me that Lesin was motivated by fellow feeling for an out-of-favor oligarch. Keep in mind that Lesin founded the Video International advertising and media empire, and, like Gusinsky, shared in the spoils following Yeltsin's victory in the 1996 election. He knew very well that he could be next, so he set out to create a precedent for resolving a dispute of this sort in the interest of the oligarchs.
As soon became clear, Lesin and the prosecutors were working at cross-purposes, much to Gusinsky's benefit. He used international concern about freedom of speech in Russia as a bargaining chip in his negotiations with the government.
The two lines of attack intersected in June 2000 at Lefortovo Prison, where Gusinsky was incarcerated on orders from the Prosecutor General's Office. Lesin visited Gusinsky and presented him with Protocol No. 6, an offer to quash the criminal case against Gusinsky and to compensate him in exchange for the voluntary renunciation of his business interests. Gusinsky signed on the dotted line and the state honored its promise: The criminal case was dropped and Gusinsky was allowed to leave the country. The government's buyout offer clearly didn't suit Gusinsky, however. After a while he backed out of the deal, insisting that his signature had been obtained under duress. The gentlemen's agreement fell apart, and from that point on the government has opted for the stick, not the carrot, as Mikhail Khodorkovsky learned to his regret.
In its ruling last week, the European Court of Human Rights condemned both approaches, insisting that people be investigated and tried in accordance with the law. That, of course, would mean trying not only oligarchs but the government officials who helped them get where they are today -- first and foremost the so-called young reformers and Yeltsin himself, the chief architect of the current feudal regime in which blessings are bestowed by the will of the sovereign and his cronies. This would be only fair, of course, but it would most likely lead to even greater expansion of the state's repressive apparatus and potentially to a slew of political show trials of the 1937 variety.
Those silly Europeans! Do they realize what they're pushing our president, who has been quite harmless so far, into?