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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

ESSAY: Time to Bring on the Judge in Gusinsky Case




Barely a week after Media-MOST head Vladimir Gusinsky was thrown into a prison cell at the infamous Butyrskaya prison, it is becoming fairly clear how this affair will end. One possible outcome f following the interpretation presented by Media-MOST itself f is that the government will continue its campaign against the media group and other independent media. Gusinsky will be convicted of embezzlement. His television station, NTV, will be seized or sold to a more cooperative owner, and the nation's free press will be silenced by fear.


Although betting against the worst possible outcome is never a safe wager in this country, I doubt that this scenario will be played out. NTV has marshaled several powerful forces in its defense. Centrist and liberal politicians have paraded in front of its cameras, standing up for freedom of the press. Even novelists, theater directors and various other cultural figures have joined the parade on camera. Journalists have seemingly united behind Gusinsky's cause. Foreign investors, politicians and journalists all contributed their two cents' worth while President Vladimir Putin was on a six-day tour of Europe, where he could not avoid foreign criticism.


Much more importantly, only one day after Gusinsky was detained, 17 of the nation's prominent business leaders held a news conference and sent the newly elected president a letter of strong support for Gusinsky. These business leaders f on any other story, the press would call them oligarchs f have intense personal motivation for supporting Gusinsky. None of them wants to be the next oligarch thrown in jail on charges of embezzling state property. All of them wield enormous power, mostly thanks to their control of former or existing state property that many people claim they stole or embezzled.


Putin can easily calculate the odds of a complete victory over Gusinsky: 17 oligarchs against, one in favor. Add in all the politicians, cultural figures and media personalities, and the odds might be 20-to-1 against successfully closing down Media-MOST.


A more likely scenario is that Putin and the government have realized their political mistake in attacking Media-MOST head on. Thus, they simply will not pursue the embezzlement case much farther. A few delayed court dates, a few legal technicalities followed by a few conciliatory remarks and just about everything will go back to the way it was before. A victory for independence of the press? Hardly.


This second scenario is much more likely than the first and almost as bad. This country will still be ruled by an oligarchy, and the oligarchs would know that they have broad immunity from prosecution. The independent press would not have been defended, since there really isn't an independent press here. Gusinsky would be mildly chastised, and Media-MOST would be more careful in trying to choose the winning side in the next election.


Please don't misunderstand me. NTV and Media-MOST provide good entertainment and relatively accurate news, that is, relative to that of the rest of the nation's media. They are not, however, politically independent. Like almost every other media outlet in Russia, they have received financial or material support from politicians f in this case, from former President Boris Yeltsin and from Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov. Gusinsky made the mistake of supporting Mayor Luzhkov in the last set of elections. He shouldn't be prosecuted for this "mistake" nor should he receive immunity from embezzlement charges because he owns NTV.


Public opinion has not played much of a role in the Gusinsky affair. One interpretation of this fact is that half of the population is afraid of losing whatever freedom of the press remains, and about half would like to see an oligarch thrown in jail for stealing state property. Another interpretation is that almost all people know there is very little meaningful press freedom in the country, and almost all would like to see an oligarch thrown in jail.


But everyone involved seems to agree on one point: Almost any of the oligarchs, indeed almost any businessman, could be convicted of breaking some law because the laws in this country have been unclear and hostile to business ever since the fall of the Soviet Union. Oligarchs Boris Berezovsky and Mikhail Khodorkovsky, on opposite sides of the conflict, have both made very clear statements on this point.


Stop and think about this point for a moment. It is not a viable defense for Gusinsky either legally or morally. He is accused of embezzling $10 million in state property in 1997, not of anti-Soviet activity in 1993. If unequal enforcement of the law is allowed as a defense, no oligarch will ever be convicted of anything simply because none has been convicted before.


Yet a third scenario is possible for the end of the Gusinsky affair, though perhaps it is too much to hope for. The charges brought against Vladimir Gusinsky will be tried in an open court with all deliberate speed. If Gusinsky is found guilty, the public will have the opportunity to judge the evidence, the extent of his guilt and the fairness of his punishment. But if Gusinsky is found innocent, he will be able to clear his name. Very likely, the prosecutors and the people who stand behind them would be punished f as President Putin has already promised f if the charges were made improperly.


There are several forces that make this scenario possible. Putin could wash his hands of the whole matter and thus avoid the infighting among the oligarchs while they reduce their own power. The public would at last have some retribution f from one side or the other f for the billions of dollars of property that has been stolen from it. Even the oligarchs would be able to stabilize their positions. They will be served notice that they are not above the law f but they will also be protected from their rivals, who will also not be above the law anymore.


It's time we see that diktatura zakona f that dictatorship of law f that Putin has been talking about so much. It's time we see the government's case in an open court with a defendant who is able to defend himself. It's time to bring on the judge.


Peter Ekman is a professor of finance at the American Institute of Business and Economics. He contributed this essay to The Moscow Times. The opinions expressed here are not necessarily those of the American Institute of Business and Economics.