Media mogul Vladimir Gusinsky has survived the Russian government's sustained assault on his media empire, which encompasses film, TV and press, and even made political capital out of this recent arrest and imprisonment. But has President Vladimir Putin succeeded in reining in one of his most vocal opponents' Anna Franklin reports.
Media tycoon Vladimir Gusinsky emerged as one of the richest and most powerful businessmen in Russia in the early 1990s. Long considered one of Russia's elite group of businessmen, dubbed the "oligarchs" by the Russians, who control the country's wealth and influence its government, Gusinsky's arrest and imprisonment in June sent shock waves throughout the business community. Even Gusinsky's arch rival, Russian tycoon Boris Berezovsky, criticised the arrest.
Charged with embezzling $10m in a privatisation deal, Gusinsky was released after spending four days in Moscow's notorious Butyrskaya prison. Gusinsky, who is a master at the art of manipulating public opinion, turned the arrest into a cause celebre for freedom of speech, garnering much favourable support domestically and abroad. The charges against him were subsequently dropped and he left for Spain to join his family without comment - an unusual move for the usually-outspoken Gusinsky.
The arrest was just the most dramatic event in a long series of problems that have plagued Gusinsky and his Media-Most group since Russia's financial crisis in August 1998. The 47-year-old former theatre director amassed his fortune rapidly in the early days of Russia's transition to capitalism, building a financial and property empire with close ties to Moscow city government. His Most Bank, which handled most of the business for the city, became one of the country's leading investment institutions and he aligned himself closely with Moscow mayor Yury Luzhkov.
Gusinsky quickly became involved in the media, which in Russia is tightly intertwined with politics. In 1993, using his financial group as a platform, he launched Segodnya, one of the largest daily newspapers, and NTV, the first national independent television channel in Russia. In 1994, he become head of the newly-created Media-Most holding. His media empire continued to expand, adding leading news magazine Itogi and Ekho Moskvy radio station to his media stable.
The group soon established a reputation for independent journalism and as an outspoken critic of government policies, especially during the 1994-95 Chechen war. Gusinsky's first brush with the Kremlin came in 1994 when Most Bank's offices were raided by Kremlin security troops. Gusinsky fled to London for several months, saying that he feared for his life. He returned to Moscow, but he continues to spend a great deal of time in London, which he considers a second home.
Another country he considers home is Israel, where he has wide-ranging media interests. Although born in Russia, he has Israeli citizenship and takes an active interest in the Jewish community. He is the president of the Russian Jewish Congress and the vice president of the World Jewish Congress, both of which expressed their strong support for him when he was arrested in June.
Since his arrest, Gusinsky has said that he regrets helping to create the oligarchical economic system that now exists, but in 1996, he joined Berezovsky and other business oligarchs in backing Boris Yeltsin's re-election. NTV and other Media-Most outlets threw their weight behind the ailing president during the campaign, which most observers agree received one-sided media coverage.
The empire continued to grow after the election with the launch of the NTV-Plus satellite network and a second national television network, THT. There were also Media-Most's film interests. The group's NTV Profit became Russia's leading producer of feature films and television drama series. Plans for investing in a chain of more than 100 cinemas around the country were announced and work began on the 11-screen October multiplex in Moscow. The group in those heady days of expansion also acquired more than $200m of debt guaranteed by state-controlled gas monopoly Gazprom.
Media-Most, as with all of Russia's media, was hit hard by the August 1998 financial crisis, when advertising revenues dropped by 80%-90% in a few weeks. Gusinsky was forced to cut back or freeze many projects, although he went ahead with the launch of his new satellite network which was too advanced to cancel. Gusinsky's media holdings were left seriously weakened, but the group claims that today its value stands at $2.3bn. Gusinsky claims he was approached by Kremlin officials asking for his support during the 1999 parliamentary elections, but that he refused. Soon after, the state-controlled Vneshekonombank called in a $42m loan, followed by the Gazprom demand to repay $210m.
Rival Berezovsky has never been shy about presenting his views on Gusinsky and Media-Most. Berezovsky, who is trying to form his own political party of "constructive opposition" to President Putin, has called Gusinsky's coverage of the Kremlin "non-constructive opposition". He was the first to claim not only that Media-Most had major financial difficulties, but that Gusinsky had compromised his news organisation in order to have the charges against him dropped, a claim Media-Most has fiercely denied.
While Media-Most spokespersons deny their editorial policy will change or that Gusinsky has "cut a deal with the government" in return for dropping the fraud charges, the Russian press has been full of speculation that this is what has happened. No one seems to doubt that Gusinsky will remain at the head of Media-Most when he eventually returns to Russia. But there is also no doubt that Gusinsky is no longer as powerful as he once was and that he is unlikely to regain his position as a power broker in business and politics any time soon.
Meanwhile, Gusinsky is lying low in his Spanish hideaway, but his presence is still felt in Russia - the unflattering puppet of Putin on satirical show Kukly is a reminder to the president that Gusinsky is still able to thrust a thorn in his side.