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Was Putin Out of the Loop?

Nothing is ever clear in the murky waters of Kremlin politics, but what emerges from Tuesday’s arrest of Vladimir A. Gusinsky, the owner of an independent media operation critical of the government, is particularly unsettling. If ordered by Russian President Vladimir V. Putin to punish Gusinsky for his criticism, it is an attack on independent media. If not--and Putin says he knew nothing about the arrest--then it means someone else is in charge in Moscow. Either way, it doesn’t bode well for democracy in Russia.

If there is a silver lining to Gusinsky’s unexpected arrest, it is the massive protest it triggered in Moscow not only among journalists but politicians and the business community as well.

Gusinsky is one of the so-called Russian oligarchs, who have amassed enormous wealth and control large swaths of the economy. His Media-Most company includes the national NTV television network, a newspaper and radio station in Moscow and Itogi magazine. Gusinsky’s outlets have been harshly critical of government policies, including the war in Chechnya.

In an interview with The Times just days before his arrest, Gusinsky said he was a victim of reprisals orchestrated by Putin’s top aide, Alexander S. Voloshin, a holdover from Boris N. Yeltsin’s presidency and, according to many accounts, the mover and shaker in the Kremlin. Putin, who is on a weeklong visit to Western Europe, lent credence to Gusinsky’s charges, saying he was shocked by the arrest and couldn’t even get in touch with the prosecutor who ordered it. This will certainly require reassessment of Putin as a strong, no-nonsense leader standing firmly at the head of his government.

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Either way, Gusinsky’s imprisonment shows that the price of refusing to toe the Kremlin’s line is high. The White House rightly expressed concern about the arrest’s impact on freedom of the press in Russia.

Putin himself must be concerned. He must realize that the threat to democracy in Russia comes not from a critical press but from those within his own government who try to muzzle it.


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