A Bear's Tale Makes Russian Media's Fur Fly Business and Government Use the Power of Purse to Gag the Media

Article excerpt

The ties that bind politics, big business, and the press in Russia are uncomfortably tight these days.

One recent tale of just how tight began with a brief hunting trip by Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin in the old style of Soviet officials.

Bulldozers cleared about 1-1/3 miles of road and a helicopter landing pad in the woods of the Yaroslavl region. Squadrons of bodyguards, police, federal security agents, a medical emergency team, a mobile dining room, and professional hunters prepared the way. Dogs flushed two cubs and a she-bear found in their winter cave, and the prime minister himself killed one of the cubs. When this story appeared in two Russian weeklies, Mr. Chernomyrdin was not amused. Officials in his office persuaded a Moscow bank to freeze the credit of the offending weeklies, the magazine Ogonyok. They had plenty of clout with the bank, since holding accounts for government ministries is a major source of income for Russian banks. As a result, an official in the Ogonyok publishing office told the magazine's staff that no salaries could be paid for the next two months. All because of the bear story. The magazine's editor, Lev Gushin, was in Davos, Switzerland, at the World Economic Forum. When he got word of the bank's action, he went to see another Russian in Davos, Boris Berezovsky. Mr. Berezovsky called the bank, and the decision was reversed. After all, he is not only the deputy head of the Russian Security Council, a senior Kremlin post, he is also one of Russia's wealthiest businessmen - with major interests in the auto and energy industries - and a media magnate. His companies are key owners and sponsors of the main Russian TV channel, which is still 49 percent state-owned, a Moscow daily newspaper, and the weekly magazine Ogonyok. "He reacted immediately," saying that it was improper to link a published article to a journal's funding, says Mr. Gushin. This was a close shave for a magazine that expects to live on credit for another year or so before turning a profit, but Gushin says he will publish stories like the bear-hunt piece again. "I have a long experience from the communist period in publishing articles that leaders don't like," he says. "Then you risked more than losing your funding. You could go to jail." Such independence is not so common in Russian television these days. The only completely private channel, NTV, made a name for itself with its bold and unblinking coverage of Russia's failures in the Chechen war. …