One giant step backward for democracy in Russia

The arrest of Vladimir Goussinsky is an assault on Russia's free press and a threat to the future of democracy in Russia. It is also a bad omen and dangerous for the country's Jews.

That is the message we conveyed Consul General Yuri Popov on June 15 at the Russian Consulate on Green Street. The San Francisco meeting had been scheduled long ago with Jonathan Bernstein, the Anti-Defamation League's regional director, and Greg Smith, a lay leader with the Bay Area for Rescue and Renewal.

We had planned to discuss our upcoming joint Russian-American hate crimes training project with the consul general. We had come to the Russian Consulate to work together as partners in advancing civil society in Russia. But in light of Goussinsky's arrest, we were forced to register our strong protest.

Goussinsky is head of a major Russian media network and president of the Russian Jewish Congress, a nascent umbrella funding organization that provides support for Jewish schools, clinics and other communal institutions in Russia. The media network, Media-Most, is the only independent press outlet in Russia. It has been a constant thorn in the side of the Russian government.

On June 6, authorities arrested Goussinsky and placed him in Moscow's most notorious prison, Butyrskaya. They did not charge him with a crime until two days after his arrest. Earlier, he had been subjected to a paramilitary-like raid on his office at the hands of masked and armed tax police.

If, as the authorities claim, their goal was to rein in Russia's powerful oligarchs, why start with the man whose television station has been the only independent media voice in Russia, and the one most critical of the government?

We are told that it was the prosecutor-general who decided on Goussinsky's arrest. President Vladimir Putin has expressed his disagreement with that decision. But he asserts that the Prosecutor General's Office is an independent body and he has no right to try to influence it.

Then I ask, why Goussinsky? He is, after all, one of many Russian oligarchs. We know of well-established cases of abuse and embezzlement, such as that of Pavel Borodin, the Kremlin's property manager, who is accused by the Swiss of embezzling tens of millions of dollars through Moscow construction projects. Yet not only has Borodin not been arrested, but he continues to enjoy a position of privilege within the government.

The case against Goussinsky involves his purchase of a St. Petersburg video company back in 1997. I ask, why now? Just hours before Goussinsky's arrest, an intrigue was taking place within Russia's Jewish community. Rabbi Berel Lazar claimed for himself the title of chief rabbi of Russia, a position already held by Rabbi Adolf Shayevich, who happens to be a leader in Goussinsky's RJC. Last month, when Putin was inaugurated, it was Lazar he invited, and not Shayevich. One has to wonder if these events can be mere coincidence.

Of the case against Goussinsky, a government spokesman said that the law is the law, and it applies to everybody, no matter if he's a wealthy businessman or the head of a Jewish organization. What was he telling us?

For more than 30 years, the Bay Area Council has been working to improve the lives of Jews in Russia and the former Soviet Union. Goussinsky's dramatic arrest and the treatment of press who are critical toward the government undermine the establishment of civil society. Russian law allows imprisoning the accused under "extraordinary conditions." What is it about Goussinsky that makes his case extraordinary?

Though Goussinsky has now been released, the affair is far from over and its implications are chilling. The actions that have been taken against him are a grim throwback to Soviet-style tactics of pitting people against Jews and Jews against each other. The Russian government's manipulation of existing tensions within the Jewish community threatens to destabilize organized Jewish life there. In its cynical maneuvering to try to neutralize Goussinsky, the government is relying on a deeply rooted Russian anti-Semitism to turn public sentiment against him.

Given the Jewish experience in Russia, it is easy to fan the embers of anti-Semitism. Russia's Jews can only survive in a true democracy, not one in which laws are used selectively to advance political ends.

Goussinsky's arrest took place while Putin was out of the country. The Russian president claims to have had no advance knowledge of this arrest.

I believe that Putin is still in the process of determining the course of his own leadership. In dealing with this situation, he has an opportunity to reject the proclivities of his KGB past, accept the inconvenience and the challenge of a free press deal with groups that speak with more than one voice and truly embrace democracy.