The owner of Russia's largest independent media operation was arrested here Tuesday evening, several days after an aide was warned that authorities were planning new moves against the tycoon's Media-Most company.
The arrest of Vladimir A. Gusinsky, whose media outlets have not shied away from criticizing the Kremlin, sparked a wave of dismay and outrage among journalists and liberal politicians.
The magnate's battle with the government came to a head just days after his right-hand man, Igor Y. Malashenko, was warned to take care or risk arrest.
"We are getting warnings they may raid Media-Most again. I am getting warnings that they may plant drugs or weapons in my car," Malashenko said in an interview Thursday with The Times. He said the statements were conveyed by intermediaries friendly to both Malashenko and the Kremlin.
In Thursday's interview, Malashenko also accused the FSB, the main successor to the KGB, of planting 12 rounds of illegal ammunition in his office when Media-Most's offices were raided May 11 by Interior Ministry commandos and FSB officers. The company was hit by a similar raid in December 1994, and at that time Gusinsky was forced to flee overseas.
In Washington, the Clinton administration on Tuesday sharply criticized the arrest, which officials said appeared to be aimed at muzzling Russia's media.
"This new action against Mr. Gusinsky will obviously draw the closest of scrutiny," said State Department spokesman Philip T. Reeker. "I think there have been a series of events now, including [Tuesday's] events in Russia, which have drawn international attention to the issue of press freedom."
Gusinsky's arrest came after an interview with The Times on May 31 in which he charged that Russian President Vladimir V. Putin's chief of staff, Alexander S. Voloshin, had declared war last year against Media-Most because of the company's refusal to bend its media voices to the Kremlin line in advance of a presidential election held in March.
Although Gusinsky has not been above using his operation to press his financial interests, his media--which include the national NTV network, the Sevodnya daily newspaper, Echo of Moscow radio and Itogi magazine--generally have taken an independent line. They have often criticized the Kremlin, in particular over the government's war against the separatist republic of Chechnya.
After his arrest, Gusinsky was taken to Moscow's notorious Butyrskaya prison, rather than to Lefortovo prison, where prominent criminals are usually housed and conditions are generally better.
The prosecutor general's office said Gusinsky faces charges of swindling and grand larceny of up to $10 million in state funds and could be given 10 years in prison if convicted. The prosecutor can hold Gusinsky for 10 days before filing charges.
In The Times' interview last month, Gusinsky said there had been persistent Kremlin pressure on him during the past year to get out of the media business and threats to bankrupt him if he refused. "As for how far the Kremlin is prepared to go, we'll see," he said then.
After the news of Gusinsky's arrest, NTV aired a two-hour live discussion with politicians, journalists and activists.
Boris Y. Nemtsov, leader of the liberal, pro-market Union of Right Forces political faction, said on the program that the arrest discredited the nation. He questioned how Putin, who is touring Europe, could talk about Russian democracy or hope to attract investment to the country.
"I think it's an intimidation action not only directed against the independent mass media but against all Russian citizens: If you don't behave yourself, you will be in Butyrskaya," Nemtsov said.
He also said it was clear that Gusinsky would not have been arrested without the authority of the Kremlin. However, Putin, speaking Tuesday in Madrid, insisted that the arrest came as a surprise to him.
"It's a doubtful gift for me," the president said. "I hope the prosecutor's office has sufficient reasons and everything was done in keeping with the law."
Staff writer Norman Kempster in Washington contributed to this report.