Even a Media Mogul's Enemies Fear the Implications of His Arrest

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Even Stalin was fond of citing the fiction that his prosecutors were independent and beyond his control. And that's why Russians will take little comfort in President Vladimir Putin's suggestion, while traveling in Spain, that he knew nothing about the arrest this week of anti-Kremlin media mogul Vladimir Gusinsky. Gusinsky, the oligarch whose Media-MOST company operates radio, TV and print media critical of President Putin's administration, was arrested Tuesday, purportedly on charges of stealing $10 million in state property, and taken to a 19th-century prison where he'll have to wait 10 days before appearing in court. Because Gusinsky is the only oligarch facing this kind of harassment since Putin took power, his arrest is viewed as a reaction to critical coverage of the Kremlin in the Gusinsky-owned media.

"Vladimir Gusinsky is certainly no better than any other Russian oligarch," says TIME Moscow correspondent Yuri Zharakovich. "All of them came to their exalted positions and their wealth by crook rather than by hook. But he has, nonetheless, created the most honest and most professional media organization in the country, and its objective coverage of stories such as the Chechnya war has infuriated the Kremlin. Putin may say that this was an independent decision by the prosecutor's office, but nobody in Russia makes a decision of such magnitude unless it comes from the boss."

In a country that knows the capricious terror of Stalinism, the magnitude of Gusinsky's arrest is not being underestimated. "This spells the beginning of the end of freedom of speech in Russia, which has been the only tangible benefit the country has gained since the collapse of the Soviet system," says Zharakovich. And it's not only Putin critics who see the media mogul's arrest as an ill omen. Even Boris Berezovsky — the oligarch most closely connected with Putin's rise, and a mortal enemy of Gusinsky because of business and political rivalry — has expressed disquiet. "Berezovsky, who actually wanted Gusinsky out of the way, appears to be scared by how the Kremlin has gone about removing him," says Zharakovich. "Because Berezovsky is extremely intelligent, and he knows that in this country, once you start the wheel of terror turning, it can destroy everyone — even those who started it."