The Kremlin wins one: President Vladimir Putin’s bitter critic, Media-Most media empire, is dead. Its assets have been transferred to pro-Kremlin stockholders, its journalists have been fired or silenced and its owner, Vladimir Gusinsky, is hiding abroad.

According to the Kremlin, Media-Most collapsed under the weight of its own debts and gross mismanagement, not under state pressure, let alone persecution. Yet the Kremlin wants Spain to extradite Gusinsky for alleged “economic crimes.” As for Media-Most’s journalists, they are being lectured by Putin on what is ethical and what is not ethical in covering the news. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? An iron hand in a velvet glove always starts by crushing the unfriendly mass media.

Media-Most used to consist of several prize pieces, with the NTV television station being its crown jewel. In the muddled world of Russian broadcasting, NTV definitely stood out as an island of professionalism and general high standards. If other TV stations were just holdovers from the inglorious Soviet past, NTV was attempting to build something completely new for Russia: a dynamic, thought-provoking channel, combining political liberalism with advanced, Internet-age aesthetics.

Its anchors were smartly dressed and deliberately sophisticated. Its concept of history was rooted in irony, if not outright cynicism. The movies it showed were either produced in the West or inspired by its culture. NTV was as close to a postmodern, cosmopolitan mass medium as a popular channel can possibly be. In other words, it was rejecting the legacy of Mother Russia and leaning toward Uncle West instead. Such a station was doomed to clash with the new tenant of the Kremlin, Vladimir Putin.

To NTV journalists, Putin looked dangerously traditional and very Soviet in his feverish patriotism, ambitious geostrategic gambits and total disregard of the human costs of his policies, in Chechnya or anywhere else. NTV was one of the most persistent critics of Putin’s military campaign in Chechnya and of his overall disrespect for the concept of human rights as such.

The station was constantly voicing the popular concern that the president was steering the country away from the path of democracy back into the authoritarian jungle. With no political party strong enough to provide a liberal alternative to the Kremlin’s new mind-set, NTV found itself in the vanguard of the anti-Putin opposition — an unenviable position, to say the least.

Putin and his entourage reacted to this challenge with venom. One of the myths the president of Russia cultivates is that he enjoys the trust and support of the whole nation. The voice of NTV, expressing the anger and frustration of younger and better-educated people, was an unwelcome reminder that the very opposite is true: Putin is not as popular in Russia as he likes to think.

The Kremlin decided to frame NTV — and together with it all of Media-Most. This was not a difficult task in a country like Russia, where all entrepreneurs operate in a kind of legal gray zone. Gusinsky, Media-Most’s owner, was accused of economic crimes, arrested and, under heavy international pressure, allowed to leave jail and, subsequently, Russia. After he fled to his villa in Spain, the fate of his media empire was sealed.

Of course, when Putin calls Gusinsky a shady mogul, he is right. There is no reason to believe that the former owner of Media-Most is more virtuous than any other robber baron in a country undergoing drastic economic transformation. Media empires are rarely created by law-abiding altruists, especially in turbulent places like Russia. However, there are two positive things to be said about Gusinsky: he has good taste and he finds democracy useful. What more can one ask of a mogul? These two qualities would be good enough for the founder of any modern financial empire.

Of course, it is important to remember that the crash of Media-Most does not mark the end of freedom of speech in Russia — at least not yet. But it does mark the demise of its biggest stronghold. Now the voices of Putin’s opponents are dispersed and therefore much weaker and quieter. This is definitely a loss for Russia and, indirectly, for everyone interested in Russia’s future.

It is not yet clear whether the collapse of Media-Most has any special place in Putin’s plans for the country. Does he want to silence his opponents before launching some appalling campaign or taking a very unpopular decision? Is it that he is simply irritated by public criticisms? Or is he just feeling vengeful toward Media-Most for its unflattering comments on his personality and stature?

When Putin was campaigning for president slightly more than a year ago, Gusinsky’s journalists did not hesitate to bring up every point about his biography and looks that could potentially influence the popular vote — even Putin’s miniature stature. Did he take that as a personal insult? Well, his response to Media-Most certainly did not lack forcefulness.

His predecessor in the Kremlin, former President Boris Yeltsin, paid no attention to anything the mass media said about him, his drinking habits, his embezzling buddies and his policies in general. That was both bad and good news: The mass media could not influence the president, but they never felt threatened by him, either.

Putin’s skin seems to be much thinner. He is supersensitive to criticism — not an encouraging quality in any leader, but particularly not in the leader of a country that until very recently had more prison watchtowers than TV antennas.

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