Pushing the Boundaries of a Free Press

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Vladimir A. Gusinsky, owner of Russia's largest independent media group, stands virtually alone among the business and political elite here in going head-to-head in battle with President Vladimir V. Putin and his powerful Kremlin chief of staff, Alexander S. Voloshin.

His lone struggle has become a kind of litmus test of what Russia will be like under the new president. If his news outlets are forced out of business, Gusinsky told The Times on Wednesday in a rare interview, then people can conclude that Russia under Putin is no longer tolerant of an open and pluralistic media.

The tycoon's media outlets generally have been among the most independent, objective and active in Russia in the post-Soviet era. They have been more openly critical in their reporting about the nation's two wars in the republic of Chechnya. In the presidential campaign that ended with Putin's election in March, Gusinsky's media--far more than others--resisted simply echoing the Kremlin line.

Gusinsky, whose Media-Most offices were raided last month by heavily armed police commandos wearing masks, told The Times that there has been persistent Kremlin pressure on him in the last year to get out of the media business and threats to bankrupt him if he refused.

But the real showdown came in a meeting last summer when, Gusinsky said, Voloshin tried to persuade him to toe the Kremlin line in the presidential election.

"Voloshin said, as if he was joking, 'Let's pay you $100 million so that you won't be in our way while the election is on. You could go on a vacation,' " Gusinsky said in the interview at his Moscow office, which was raided by commandos and searched by agents of the Federal Security Service, the main successor to the KGB.

The media tycoon said he informed Voloshin that he would not repeat the 1996 presidential election scenario, when Russia's powerful oligarchs--including Gusinsky--all backed incumbent President Boris N. Yeltsin.

He told the Kremlin chief that his media--the national NTV network, Sevodnya daily newspaper, Echo of Moscow radio and Itogi magazine--would play fair. But Voloshin said he did not believe the magnate. Gusinsky said that when he declared that he had no intention of going away, Voloshin told him that meant war between the Kremlin and Gusinsky's Media-Most.

The meeting was in the office of then-Prime Minister Sergei V. Stepashin and was attended by a Kremlin aide linked to Gusinsky, Sergei Zveryev, who was dismissed from the Kremlin staff shortly afterward. (He is not the same Sergei Zveryev who was killed in a suspected rebel bomb attack in Chechnya on Tuesday.)

The Kremlin press office could not be reached for comment Wednesday night concerning Gusinsky's allegation.

Gusinsky, 47, is a flamboyant, elegant, larger-than-life fellow who peppers his conversation with amusing stories and adores the NTV network's cheeky satirical puppet show, "Kukly." He is also stubborn, certain he is in the right and scoffs at the word compromise.

"What do you mean by a compromise with Putin?" he asked. "Take 'Kukly' off the air? Forbid journalists to tell the truth about Chechnya? Stop writing about government corruption? Should I say the entire FSB is crystal clean and just doing its job? If this is called compromise, then this is impossible."

Nothing, he said, short of a totalitarian coup would shut down his news outlets. But if Putin's media policy changed overnight and viewers turned on Gusinsky's NTV to find news programs more like what appears on a state channel, "then you'll know what's happened," he said.

Gusinsky insisted that his defiance is not just about protecting his business but also about journalistic integrity and his desire that his 21-year-old son, Ilya, who is studying in the U.S., will know that his father is a principled man.

He said he told Voloshin last summer that his media would not fight back if the Kremlin declared war.

"I was told there already was a war. He said, 'Your mass media are already writing nasty things about the government, Yeltsin, the Family.' " Voloshin is a key member of "The Family," the inner Kremlin circle that has largely remained in place in the transition from Yeltsin to Putin.

In the past, Gusinsky has not been above using his media interests to fight business battles, particularly after he lost out in a 1997 struggle to get a chunk of the Russian telecommunications company, Svyazinvest.

In addition, Gusinsky is widely regarded as having close ties to Moscow Mayor Yuri M. Luzhkov, who formed an anti-Kremlin alliance last year with former Prime Minister Yevgeny M. Primakov. But Gusinsky denies the widely held view that he backed Luzhkov and Primakov against the Kremlin.

Gusinsky said Kremlin figures exerted pressure on him in the last year to sell his media business, though sometimes the message was conveyed by intermediaries.

Late last year, tax police raided one of the group's large publishing houses, Sem Dney. Media-Most has also been under financial pressure in a legal battle with the state-owned Vneshekonombank concerning a $60-million debt to the bank. Gusinsky's group lost a court battle and was forced to pay.

But Gusinsky sees the bank's action as merely another instrument of the Kremlin pressure.

"All these myths about the Media-Most overdue debts were deliberately concocted by the Kremlin team in order to exert pressure on us," he said. "After the Kremlin had realized that it can't pressure us financially and legally--or at least showing some semblance of legality in their actions against us--then the people in masks showed up. I think that must have been a sign of despair. The FSB poked their nose into every single corner without us being present."

Born in Moscow in 1952 to Jewish parents, Gusinsky was a theater director in Soviet times and leaped into business in 1986. He was flexible and inventive in his quest to get ahead: He drove cabs, traded goods, sold computers and office equipment and founded a metal company that made jewelry and garages.

In 1989, he became a political consultant and founded a joint venture a year later called Most, which became the base for a private bank formed in 1991. In 1994 he was approached by a journalist who had a proposal to set up a newspaper.

He created Media-Most in 1997, giving up his role as Most-Bank president.

Jesting in Wednesday's interview, Gusinsky poked fun at that decision to go into media as "one of the most serious blunders of my life," given the trouble it has brought him.

In the six years since he got into the media business, Gusinsky has concluded that it is impossible to have a good relationship with the authorities. But the question he has to ponder is how far the Kremlin is prepared to go in order to bring him to heel.

Gusinsky is confident that the authorities do not have the ability to bankrupt him, but neither is he willing to make a deal.

Gusinsky now spends much of his time on airplanes, shuttling between Russia, Europe and Israel. Some people, including his relatives, wonder why he does not give up tangling with Russia's authorities and set up overseas, where his media would have greater legal protections.

"I was born in Moscow. My father is buried here, and all my relatives are buried in Russia," he said.

"I want Russia to be part of Europe not only in words but in practice. I don't believe an authoritarian or totalitarian regime is capable of reforms, especially in the 21st century. I am convinced we are working for the benefit of the country."

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Alexei V. Kuznetsov of The Times' Moscow Bureau contributed to this report.

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