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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Sleaze War Taints the Press

In Nezavisimaya Gazeta's latter-day Kremlinological ratings this month, there was an unusually large smattering of commercial bankers and media bosses, and I am sure this is no coincidence: The media are being increasingly becoming a weapon, not a mirror, in the new clan warfare of Russian politics.


Boris Berezovsky of Logovaz was rated by the poll of experts as the 21st most influential politician in Russia. Further down came Igor Malashenko of NTV Independent Television, Vladimir Gusinsky (MOST-Bank), Yevgeny Kiselyov (Itogi), Alexander Smolensky (Stolichny Bank), Mikhail Khodorkovsky (Menatep), Sergei Blagovolin (ORT), Eduard Sagalayev (RTR) and Igor Golembiovsky (Izvestia). And that was not counting Vladimir Potanin, the banker-turned-first-deputy-prime-minister, who came in at No. 12.


Nezavisimaya's chart is something of a Moscow parlor game, but it is also a measure of what the political elite thinks about itself, and it is striking that the above-mentioned people were deemed to be more important than the chief of the general staff, the chairman of the Constitutional Court, the governor of Sverdlovsk or the head of the FSB.


This poll, one should remember, was taken before the sleaze war broke out and the spotlight turned on Berezovsky and Gusinsky. Since then, in his interview to Litsa magazine, Korzhakov has said that Berezovsky tried to persuade him to kill Gusinsky. This was before the two bankers apparently became the best of friends, because Korzhakov's next allegation was that the two men had put out a contract to have him murdered.


Korzhakov has identified a new Kremlin cabal, which has supplanted his own group of influence. Its leader is Anatoly Chubais, ably assisted (although he does not say so out loud) by Yeltsin's daughter Tatyana Dyachenko, Malashenko and Gusinsky. What is additionally galling for the former bodyguard is that two former friends of his, Berezovsky and the Ogonyok journalist and presidential ghostwriter Valentin Yumashev have now also defected to this camp. So much for loyalty!


All this would just be an unusually lurid soap opera if there were not some serious issues at stake. And most prominent among them is that in a free society the media should not reflect and not distort what is going on, and two media magnates are now personally involved in a huge political scandal.


In the post-election climate, there is a new power struggle in which the communists play no part. No one except Boris Yeltsin is immune from attack. And to further your candidate, your financial interests and your lobby group you need two things -- money and the chance to impress public opinion.


As a reminder, Gusinsky's MOST-Bank owns most of NTV as well as the newspaper Segodnya, Itogi magazine and the radio station Ekho Moskvy. Berezovsky meanwhile owns a huge stake in ORT, the supposedly "public" television channel which is in fact 49 percent privately owned. Both made an immense contribution to the Yeltsin election campaign and consequently have the Chubias team's lasting gratitude.


The point is not that the mainstream media has not been biased over the last few years. It has. The opposition has consistently been given short shrift and certain unfortunates, such as Mikhail Gorbachev, have found themselves virtually ostracized from the air. But the tactics used against the opposition consisted mainly of denying them air time and giving tendentious commentaries to reports about them. It was crude and simplistic, but at least not actively nasty.


The latest coverage smacks of something qualitatively different and much more personal. It is absolutely no accident that the two channels that showed the interview with Boris Fyodorov attacking Alexander Korzhakov were Gusinsky's NTV and Berezovsky's ORT. Korzhakov long ago declared war on Gusinsky -- remember the raid on MOST Bank in December 1994 -- and now seems to have added Berezovsky to his list of enemies.


NTV's "Itogi" was Lebed's biggest promoter during the campaign. Who can forget Yevgeny Kiselyov saying "Bravo!" to him on election night?


Now it has turned 180 degrees and has identified Lebed as a public enemy about to embrace an even bigger public enemy, Korzhakov.


NTV is almost certainly right about Korzhakov and may well be right about Lebed, but that, of course, is not the point. The point is that media proprietors are using their media outlets to wage their personal battles. Today the target is Korzhakov, tomorrow it could be someone else. The viewing and reading public deserve something better.