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Putin's dirty tricks revealed

Published Sep. 27, 2005

Not for nothing was Vladimir Putin trained by the KGB. The new president of Russia seems a little too nostalgic for the old days when government controlled information and intimidated the press, just as in the worst days of the Soviet Union.

The vodka toasts at Putin's inauguration were barely over when masked police commandos burst into the office of Vladimir Gusinsky, head of the independent Media-Most Company and proprietor of NTV, a television channel which has been critical of the war against Chechnya and skeptical about Putin's commitment to democratic ways. The machine-gun packing cops claimed to be "tax inspectors." Newspaper and magazine editors who have had the temerity to question Putin's policies have also been "visited" by men with guns.

It isn't just the independent media which are under threat for saying the wrong things in Putin's brave new Russia. Even Boris Berezovsky, Gusinky's chief competitor and head of the main state television channel, seems worried about Putin's clampdowns. In a magazine owned by Berezovsky, he published a leaked Kremlin strategy document which calls on the FSP (the successor to the KGB) to enforce "loyalty" to the new regime by finding ways to dominate the media. Blackmail and other "dirty tricks" could be, according to the document, effective tools in bringing any unruly journalists into line.

Putin did not deal well with journalists _ Russian or foreign_ who tried to get the real story of what was going on in the Chechen war. Reporters who talked to civilians with evidence of egregious human rights violations during the siege of Grozny either found themselves subsequently denied access or even detained by Russian soldiers. And now that he is president, Putin seeks to expand his control of information by any means necessary.

We must hope that journalists will not be cowed by these tactics, but will carry on reporting the truth about Chechnya, about Putin's dirty tricks, and about the Kremlin's attempts to recentralize power at the expense of individual rights. Despite Putin's overtures to the West, in which he portrays himself as a nuclear disarmer and economic reformer, the old ways of the spymaster, the Machiavellian, are becoming apparent. The KGB can change its name but not its character.