Armed revenue agents storm independent media group

 

The only national media group that opposed the election of President Vladimir Putin has had its headquarters stormed by masked gunmen from the Tax Service, Interior Ministry and the KGB's successor agency on just the second working day after the presidential inauguration.

Leading politicians from most parties expressed outrage at the action last night but there was no comment from Mr Putin who, ironically, was entertaining Mr Ted Turner, head of the US TV company CNN, in the Kremlin.

The Media-Most group owns the independent NTV channel, the Ekho Mosvy Radio Station, the liberal Segodnya daily newspaper and the Itogi news magazine, which is published in conjunction with Newsweek. The group's chairman is Mr Vladimir Gusinsky, a leading member of Moscow's Jewish community and the main business rival of the sinister oligarch, Mr Boris Berezovsky.

Mr Putin was reported to have intervened personally to scotch a bank deal involving Mr Gusinsky in recent weeks. His nomination for prime minister, Mr Mikhail Kasyanov, has denied reports linking him with Mr Berezovsky, who with Mr Boris Yeltsin's daughter, Ms Tatyana Dyachenko, was regarded as a power behind the scenes during the previous administration.

Mr Gusinsky, who flew back to Moscow from Israel yesterday evening, pointed the finger directly at the president, saying NTV's programmes had engendered hatred among Mr Putin and his associates. He singled out Kukli, the Russian version of Spitting Image, as the programme which caused most anger in the Kremlin. "History repeats itself. Several days after the inauguration of a president expected to change things and to revive Russia, we are all back where we started," he said.

Former Soviet president, Mr Mikhail Gorbachev, described the raid as a serious provocation against the independence of the media, while Communist Party leader Mr Gennady Zyuganov expressed anger at the use of masked men by the authorities, The country's human rights commissioner, Mr Oleg Mironov, expressed amazement that the raids were carried out without a warrant.

Former prime minister Mr Sergei Kiriyenko, one of the leaders of the Union of Right Forces in the Duma, called the action "an act of intimidation against the media".

Even the madcap right-winger, Mr Vladimir Zhirinovsky, spoke out: "The FSB (former KGB) is now in power. There will be more searches and more arrests. (Former prime minister) Chernomyrdin will probably be arrested. If we don't have bread, we will have circuses."

Media Most's headquarters in Moscow was raided at 9.30 a.m. yesterday as were two other premises owned by the company. For most of the day three men in fatigues and balaclavas blocked the main entrance to the headquarters at the corner of Palashevsky and Tryokhprudny lanes, close to where this correspondent lives. When one of them turned his back to the crowd which had gathered outside the building, the words "Tax Police" written in Russian could be seen on his camouflage jacket.

It was a scene typical of the old regime in a capital where the cops dress like robbers and the robbers are decked out in business suits. Under Mr Yeltsin and his chief of bodyguard, former KGB general Alexander Korzhakov, the Most group was subjected to severe harassment and raids, which most people believed were connected to the anti-Yeltsin line of its publications.

Late in the evening a minibus pulled up outside the headquarters building and a group of masked men dressed totally in black and armed with automatic weapons emerged from the building. They were identified by Russian journalists as members of the FSB, the organisation which succeeded the KGB in the area of internal security.

Mr Mikhail Berger, editor of Segodnya, speaking on NTV's first evening news bulletin, claimed that a deputy director of the FSB, Gen Yuri Zaostrovtsev, had instructed the agency to find anything it could to smear the Most group following allegations in his newspaper of corruption in "the highest echelons of power".

The country's main TV channel, ORT, which supported Mr Putin's presidential campaign to the virtual exclusion of his opponents, reported that the raid had uncovered equipment which could be used for bugging.

All in all it was a bad day for Mr Putin's image. Chechen rebels, operating for the first time outside Chechnya since the current conflict began, killed 18 Russian soldiers in an ambush in the neighbouring region of Ingushetia.