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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Kaliningrad's Open Season on Journalists

KALININGRAD, Western Russia -- Igor Rostov was never afraid of dogs, so when he saw the man with his canine friend heading his way, he shifted position slightly and passed by the far side of the man, leaving the dog in between.

Had he opted to pass away from the dog, on the side of the stranger, Kaliningrad's leading media magnate thinks he would have been cornered against the wall of a parking garage, beaten unconscious and left in the shadows to bleed to death.

As Rostov told the story last week from his hospital bed, the late-night pedestrian turned and hit him on the cranium with a metal pipe. A second attacker then jumped from behind a tree, and the two men rained blows on Rostov's head and back. The beatings continued for a full minute, during which Rostov crawled doggedly toward a busy street, in hopes his plight might be noticed. Then his attackers got into a car and disappeared.

Since that Nov. 29 attack, Kaliningrad has been in a furor. Most believe that Rostov was targeted because of his work as general director of Kaskad, a private media holding with a television station, two radio stations and an eponymous newspaper, the region's second most popular.

The Kaskad media are vociferous critics of the administration of Governor Leonid Gorbenko, one of the founders of the pro-Kremlin Unity party.

Gorbenko, who before becoming governor in 1996 was general director of the Kaliningrad Seaport, is up for re-election. He has been rapidly earning an unsavory reputation in his dealings with the media.

NTV's calling card political news program "Itogi," for example, broadcast an interview on Dec. 5 with Gorbenko in which the governor threw a temper tantrum, ripped off his microphone and threw it at the reporter.

Afterward, according to "Itogi" anchorman Yevgeny Kiselyov, Gorbenko's underlings offered to "buy" the videotape of that failed interview for $300,000. "Itogi," where news coverage is sharply anti-Kremlin, went on to paint Gorbenko's administration as corrupt and thuggish.

"Itogi" is not alone in seeing things that way.

Consider Igor Rudnikov, a city legislator and the editor of Noviye Kolyosa, or New Wheels, a saucy weekly newspaper in Kaliningrad. Even more than Kaskad, Noviye Kolyosa has been a relentless critic of Gorbenko's; the paper has even created a couple of demeaning nicknames in the governor's honor. Like Rostov, Rudnikov was nearly beaten to death last year; one of the paper's reporters was also badly beaten. Noviye Kolyosa's offices have been bombed twice, and the paper is now printed in neighboring Lithuania.

According to Rudnikov, Gorbenko initially tried to silence him by inviting himself on board the paper. Rudnikov said the governor personally came to his office and said, "Hey, let me be your partner."

Rudnikov declined.

Soon after he ran into problems. Rudnikov says the regional printers flatly refused to handle such an anti-Gorbenko paper, thus forcing Rudnikov to print his weekly in Lithuania and import it every Wednesday. Then, attempts to stall delivery of the paper at customs ensued, though Rudnikov said he was able to overcome them once he met with the head of the regional customs committee.

Events soon took a vicious turn. In the spring of 1998, Mikhail Kucheryavenko, a Noviye Kolyosa reporter known for vitriolic expos?s of Gorbenko, was attacked f losing most of his teeth as a result of the savage beating. Soon after, the offices of Noviye Kolyosa were bombed at night with a 100-gram stick of dynamite.

Two weeks later, a couple Molotov cocktails were thrown through the paper's office window. But the perpetrators threw the bottles too quickly after lighting the cloth wick f so the unignited bottles were waiting for Rudnikov the following morning when he came to work. He has since invited a Polish specialist to fortify his office windows with armor-like glass.

Then came Rudnikov's turn. He was attacked while stepping out of the elevator on his way to work by two men who had been waiting for him in the building entrance. Rudnikov left a liter of his own blood on the ground at the scene of the attack; had the ambulance arrived five minutes later, the doctors told him, they might as well have taken him to the morgue.

"These crimes won't be solved under the current administration [of Gorbenko], although they could be," Rudnikov said in an interview. "The perpetrators left behind lots of evidence."

Kaliningrad police don't discount political explanations for the attacks on Kucheryavenko, Rudnikov and Rostov. But as the furor subsides, they are more inclined to argue the attacks were "acts of hooliganism."

The region of Kaliningrad has one of Russia's highest rates of drug abuse and street muggings.

However, Rostov's attackers f as well as those in the other two assaults f made no attempt to steal anything. Rostov himself has no doubts as to what happened.

"Hooligans don't mutilate their victims, take nothing, and then drive away in a car," he said in an interview in his hospital room in Kaliningrad. "And they certainly don't take a dog out for a walk when doing such atrocious things," he quipped with a smile. Remarkably, he is in good spirits.

"I am 100 percent certain that the attack was politically motivated," Rostov said. Asked what might have been the motive, he said, "It wasn't just one article or report that led to the assault, but rather several. We have been critical of the regional administration for years, and needless to say, we don't get along."

Rostov believes that those who ordered the attack were expecting that, with the general director incapacitated, Kaskad would eventually collapse.

If Kaskad and Noviye Kolyosa were to shut down, Kaliningraders would essentially lose the only alternative voices about what by all accounts is a politically active region.

Gorbenko, meanwhile, has in recent months jumped ship from Fatherland-All Russia to Unity.

In September he signed a decree transferring power from the region's local governments to the Kaliningrad administration f that is, to himself.

That decree has infuriated local mayors and also Alexander Orlov, President Boris Yeltsin's representative to Kaliningrad.