Russian Media Tycoon, Vladimir Gusinsky, Arrested

Vladimir Gusinsky, owner of the Media-Most holding company that includes Russia’s largest independent television network and several other media outlets, is being held on suspicion of taking part in the theft of $10 million in state funds in a privatization deal.

But many in Russia see Gusinsky’s arrest as revenge for his company’s criticism of the Putin administration, and worry that it signals a return to Soviet-era repression of the press.

Putin, on a two-day visit to Spain, said he had not known about the arrest, but vowed to investigate the situation upon his return.

Putin said he didn’t “see a political aspect” in the arrest, according to the Interfax news agency. “As for criminal,” he said, “I don’t know yet.”

“Dirty politics”

Some Russians remain skeptical about the government’s story.

“This case stinks of dirty politics,” Vladimir Lukin, a member of the liberal Yabloko parliamentary faction told the Associated Press. “If we trust the president’s word that he hadn’t been informed, that means they have monstrously tripped him up on his first official trip abroad.”

In a joint press conference with Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar in Madrid, Putin said he, too, had more questions than answers.

“I’m sincerely worried,” Putin said. “Last night I tried to find the prosecutor general [who ordered Gusinsky’s arrest]. He’s not in Moscow. Where is he? I don’t know. But this won’t be passed aside. In Moscow, I’ll have all the information.”

The World Press Freedom committee today released a letter to the Russian government denouncing Gusinsky’s arrest. They say the mogul’s arrest is only the latest in a series of assaults against independent media organizations.

“The ongoing restriction of press freedom in Russia indicates that the country’s leaders do not recognize the fundamental importance of independent news reporting to a fully functioning and economically vigorous democracy,” the group said.

Seventeen prominent Russian businessmen released an open letter to the prosecutor general today demanding Gusinsky’s release.

“Until yesterday we believed we live in a democratic country. Today we have serious doubts about that,” the letter said.

U.S. officials, meanwhile, have said restricting press freedom would harm Russia’s international reputation. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said the U.S. was closely following the Gusinsky case.

“It is important that Mr. Gusinsky is afforded due process rights and protections in accordance with the Russian constitution and law,” Boucher said.

Putin wouldn’t comment on the charges against Gusinsky, but says they tycoon’s tax status is tricky, since he holds both Israeli and Russian citizenship and is registered as a citizen in the British colony of Gibraltar.

Putin is due to return to Moscow tomorrow.