FIFTH COLUMN: A Pristine Reputation Besmirched

Bombing Kosovo was bad enough. But now those naughty Americans are attacking the thing we Russians hold most sacred f our spotless business reputation.

The Bank of New York scandal, first aired by The New York Times and then picked up by most Western media, is part of a well-orchestrated anti-Russian propaganda campaign, commentator Pavel Sheremet said on his "Vremya" show on ORT on Saturday. He added that Russian journalists had helped fuel the scandal by trying too hard to expose corruption. Now, according to Sheremet, the corruption accusations have gone so far as to threaten Russian national interests.

Mikhail Khodorkovsky, head of the Yukos oil company, seconded that opinion in an interview with the daily Vremya MN. He said the government should do something immediately to salvage the international reputation of Russian companies. "Either [the money laundering allegations] will be investigated just by the Americans, and then the investigation will be aimed against Russian business as a whole, or the investigation will be held here, and then, possibly, someone will be held responsible, but the reputation of Russian business as a whole will not be affected," Khodorkovsky said.

In other words, investigative journalists and police throughout the world should keep in mind that even if some Russians are thieves, Russian business as a whole is pure as spring water. We as patriots must stand up for that.

It may be too late, however. We who live and work in Russia know full well how important banditry is to the way business is done here. We also know how corrupt the establishment is. No businessman, no matter how legitimate, has been able to avoid dealings with either corrupt officials or outright criminals, and in most cases with both.

So whom are we trying to fool with the patriotic rhetoric? The cries about saving Russia's reputation are especially ridiculous when they come right after a bout of mutual accusations in the oligarch-owned press. If Berezovsky's pocket journalists are willing to accuse Luzhkov of laundering money and Luzhkov's hired pens just as blithely accuse Berezovsky, who are all of them to say Russia is not as corrupt as The New York Times portrays it to be?

It is another matter, though, that most of the Western reporting on the Bank of New York scandal is uncharacteristically shoddy. For example, the fact that suspended Bank of New York vice president Natasha Gurfinkel is married to Yukos vice president Konstantin Kagalovsky is somehow judged relevant enough to the money laundering scandal to merit publication in every story on the case. The newspapers can publish dozens of disclaimers (the standard one is "No one has been charged with any crime") but reputations are still destroyed in the process.

Newsweek called Russia a "gangster state" in its recent edition without a shred of proof beyond the New York Times allegations based on inconclusive statements by unnamed sources in the FBI.

I suppose the main reason for all this is that Russia is unlikely to sue.

On the one hand, the reports in the Western press set out to confirm what we always knew about how clean our government and much of our business really are. On the other hand, they still do not prove it. There is still that straw that we patriots may clutch.