FIFTH COLUMN: Trading Places For Attack on Western Papers

The Russian corruption scandals raging throughout the world these days have produced strange turnabouts in Russia.

Who would have thought that red-blooded patriot Yury Luzhkov would publicly state that he would believe corruption allegations in the Western press until the accused Russian officials sue for libel? And who would have thought that a Westernizer like Konstantin Kagalovsky would end up accusing the West of trying to slander Russia?

Luzhkov has suffered much at the hands of Western media, not just for his nationalist stance on the Black Sea Fleet and the Crimea, but for the autocratic way he runs Moscow. Now, suddenly, the powerful mayor is backing the very same journalists who have mocked his grand designs for a peculiarly Russian form of capitalism in Moscow.

On the other hand, look at Kagalovsky, who represented Russia on the International Monetary Fund's board of directors, who married an American (although of Russian origin) and who has commuted between Moscow and New York so he can work and see his family. He's now at the forefront of the counterattack on the treacherous West.

It is easy to explain all of this, though.

Luzhkov is not facing any corruption allegations himself, and it suits him fine to have the Western press blow up the scandal. The accusations affect political camps that Luzhkov is fighting to dominate prior to the State Duma elections. And at the same time, the Moscow mayor cannot reasonably be suspected of having paid for stories in foreign papers like The New York Times or Corriere della Sera.

And formally, Luzhkov is right: How can anyone believe in the innocence of, say, Kremlin business manager Pavel Borodin if he refuses to sue his attackers? Denials in the press are not enough if newspapers openly call you corrupt.

Kagalovsky, however, has it particularly hard because there is nothing for him to deny: He is simply mentioned in connection with the Bank of New York mess, not specifically accused of anything.

So how does he fight back? And fight back he must: his reputation is at stake. The only way he can defend himself is by spreading the message that the Western press has some kind of political agenda.

There is an added aspect to all of this. For Russians reading this whole barrage of potential libel - or potentially prizewinning journalism - the main question is not whether to believe the foreign newspapers. Rather, they should note that all these news outlets liberally quote mostly anonymous sources in the U.S. and British special services. The question is then: Should a Russian trust the American FBI?

Given that far from all Americans trust that agency, the answer to that question may well be no. In Russia, analogous special services and police forces do not inspire much confidence. Take, for example, the recent scandal involving former KGB general Oleg Kalugin. ORT television aired a film accusing Kalugin of being a CIA mole. The film was an ORT/Russian counterintelligence co-production.

The public reaction? Scorn for the producers.

If only for this reason, stories about the mafia ties of Russian business people or officials need more factual proof for the Russian audience than has been provided so far. Russians - traditionalists and Westernizers alike - are much more jaded than even the scandal-fed American public.

Leonid Bershidsky is the editor of Vedomosti.