In Russia, Curbing Graft or Muzzling the Media?

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One man's oligarch is another's champion of free speech. And that's why Tuesday's arrest of Russian media mogul Vladimir Gusinsky is likely to increase Western criticism of President Vladimir Putin's commitment to human rights, and leave unanswered the question of just how widely Putin plans to cast the net in his promise to stamp out corruption. Gusinsky heads up Media-MOST, whose newspapers and radio and TV stations have been critical of Putin's administration and its conduct of the Chechnya war. In a gesture that was taken as an act of solidarity, President Clinton during his recent visit gave an exclusive radio interview to Gusinky's Echo Moscow station, following a May 11 raid on his company by paramilitary police. Now the government has ratcheted up the pressure by arresting Gusinsky and announcing he will be charged with stealing $10 million of state property.

The notion of charging one of the oligarchs with stealing state property may strike a popular chord with a Russian electorate that has seen this handful of powerful men grow impossibly rich by exploiting their connections to political power. But of course Gusinsky is only one of a number of oligarchs, and thus far there have been no signs that the new president plans to spread the pain to those, such as rival media tycoon Boris Berezovsky, who are viewed as being close to the Kremlin. "Shocking as it is, Gusinsky's arrest wasn't entirely unexpected," says TIME Moscow correspondent Andrew Meier. "He's been under steady attack for some time now and many believe the Kremlin is trying to warn him off ever misbehaving again."

Rival oligarch Berezovsky may be even more gung ho in the battle against Gusinsky, and on some unusual fronts: A new chief rabbi was elected for Russia on Tuesday, and many observers saw the vote as a thinly disguised coup in which a Gusinsky proxy was replaced by a candidate chosen by Berezovsky. If so, it may have been a maneuver designed to begin undercutting some of the international support Gusinsky could muster as head of the Russian Jewish Congress. But unless Putin is seen to be going after all the oligarchs regardless of their political preferences, Gusinsky's arrest will be protested as political persecution.