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by William Safire
I had breakfast recently with the deputy chief of Media-Most, the last major Russian TV-and-newspaper company to dare criticize or satirize the men who have "democratically" seized power in the Kremlin.
Igor Malashenko was at first unusually guarded, speaking as if being overheard by the new K.G.B. I asked: What's with the clamming up? He responded by asking if I carried a cell phone. Sure, I said, but it was turned off; I prefer to be out of touch.
He asked to see it. "To be powered off is not good enough," he said, and took out the battery. "Now it cannot be used to bug either of us."
Such precautions are now taken by many in the Russian media who know they are under surveillance by Vladimir Putin's K.G.B. no matter where they go.
Westerners who never worked or covered events in the former Soviet Union consider that paranoid. They have not been afflicted with the stifling feeling of being watched and listened to in hotels, offices, parks and cars. But after a decade of blessed free speech in Russia, repressive days are here again.
Step One in the K.G.B.'s coup took place last year, as the last of Boris Yeltsin's string of somewhat reformist prime ministers was replaced by an unknown K.G.B. apparatchik. Vladimir Putin was hand-picked by the band of oligarchs who wanted to maintain iron control of Russia's economy; they made a deal with the corrupt "family" around Yeltsin, which wanted a promise of no prosecution if their figurehead handed over power to a Kremlin-loyal K.G.B.
Step Two was a get-even war against the hated Chechens. Its popularity was ensured by the mysterious blowing-up of Russian apartment buildings, for which the secret police promptly blamed Chechen terrorists. Some defector may one day reveal it was a classic K.G.B. active-measures propaganda operation; if so, the explosions did the trick of catapulting the K.G.B.'s Putin to fame.
Step Three was to avoid a genuinely contested presidential election. With his amnesty deal made, Yeltsin resigned and named as acting president the K.G.B. man chosen by the kingmaker Boris Berezovsky and approved by family and generals. Putin then ran for election from the seat of power in the Kremlin, in control of government-owned media and able to sprinkle back pay on worker-voters.
It worked. Most of the media were cowed; politicians outside Kremlin walls were inundated with vilification. In the West, those whom Lenin reportedly called "useful idiots" were enlisted to embrace the coup's choice as a much-needed strongman to do business with. As opposition was systematically discredited and crushed, Berezovsky's selection was called an election.
Mopping up followed. A Radio Liberty newsman, Andrei Babitsky, reported all too accurately about continued Russian casualties in Chechnya. Putin's men seized him and turned him over to quislings for quieting; the new president passed public judgment that the reporter was a "traitor," and ever since the framed-up Babitsky has been a victim of prosecutorial silencing.
This emboldened coup leaders to turn on a far more powerful media figure: Vladimir Gusinsky, head of Media-Most. His channel's newscasters do not hew to the Kremlin line and his satiric puppet show aims barbs at the new strongman and the Kremlin palace guard.
Best of all for Putin's persecution purposes, Gusinsky is a Jew; unlike Berezovsky and some partners in Oligarchy Inc., he is not the self-hating, religion-denying kind. Anti-Semites applauded the K.G.B. raid on Media-Most's offices to grab files and cheered last week when the stiffnecked Jew was arrested and thrown in jail.
Putin, who surely approved the general order to break press resistance, professed ignorance. The Blair-Clinton-Schröder thirdwayniks issued mild bleats of "concern." Oligarchs next on Berezovsky's list complained.
With its chilling point made, Putin's repression crew has let the bothersome Jew out of jail for now but ordered Gusinsky to stay in Moscow while an embezzlement case against him is trumped up.
Farewell, freedom of speech. Thirdwayniks take note: When doing business with the K.G.B. coup's chosen leader, better take the batteries out of your cell phones.