Jews speculate: Did Goussinsky sell out to Putin

MOSCOW — Russian Jewish leader Vladimir Goussinsky is safe and in Spain with his family — but speculation is rife over what prompted the Russian authorities to unexpectedly drop the charges against the media mogul.

Much of the speculation focuses over whether Goussinsky made any agreements that prodded the authorities to end its two-month-long campaign of harassment, which landed the president of the Russian Jewish Congress in jail for a few days in June on charges of embezzlement.

And despite Goussinsky's release, Russian President Vladimir Putin appears to be continuing his divide-and-conquer strategy regarding the Jewish community by boosting a rival Jewish group, the Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia, at the RJC's expense.

The silence of Goussinsky and his closest aide, Igor Malashenko, who flew with him to Spain, is leading many observers to suggest that Goussinsky traded the editorial independence of his national television channel NTV for his personal freedom.

Rumors that Putin was willing to end the campaign against Goussinsky in exchange for control over NTV have been circulating in Moscow ever since the campaign against Goussinsky began in May.

Putin and his administration are angry over NTV's open support of liberal leader Grigory Yavlinsky, one of Putin's rivals in his run for the presidency earlier this year, and over the opposition of Goussinsky and NTV to Russia's war in Chechnya.

It is possible that Goussinsky's media empire, Media-Most, will be sold to Russia's national gas monopoly, Gazprom, in the near future, said Igor Shabdurasulov, who recently left a high-ranking administration position to head the empire of Goussinsky's media rival, Boris Berezovsky.

Such a sale "is the same as selling Media-Most to the state," said Shabdurasulov.

That move could be Gazprom's way of collecting on a $200 million loan to Goussinsky, which he has not repaid. "You can't feed on the state and fight it at the same time," said Berezovsky, who controls the state-owned national TV channel ORT and who was until recently a Kremlin insider.

In addition to Gazprom's financial help, NTV has enjoyed discounts on its transmission costs, which are usually only granted to state-owned channels.

Gazprom, which holds more than 40 percent of Media-Most stock, has kept silent on a possible deal, as has Putin's administration.

Such an explanation flies in the face of Goussinsky's image as a political gadfly and street fighter.

"My sense is that he's going to continue" to criticize the government if he thinks it is justified," said Mark Levin, executive director of the NCSJ: Advocates on Behalf of Jews in Russia, Ukraine, the Baltic States & Eurasia.

Levin and other U.S. advocates for Jews from the former Soviet Union credit the dropping of the charges to international pressure that was brought to bear on Russia.

Goussinsky is "very appreciative of all the support he's gotten from the American and Israeli governments and the American Jewish community," said Levin, who spoke with Goussinsky soon after his arrest.

Fifty-two members of the U.S. Congress sent a letter to President Clinton to press Russia to "formally justify" Goussinsky's arrest.

Micah Naftalin, of the Union of Councils for Soviet Jews, said Clinton administration officials told him the president would bring up Goussinsky's arrest when he met with Putin at the summit in Japan last month.

Vasily Botchkaryov, governor of the Penza region, who supported the action against Goussinsky, agrees that international pressure spurred the Russian Jewish leader's release.

But one Russian Jewish official disagrees. Lev Krichevsky, the head of the Anti-Defamation League's office in Moscow, believes Goussinsky's release more likely resulted from internal Kremlin politics.

Putin has recently consolidated his power by limiting the reach of Russia's regional governors — and of Goussinsky and his fellow oligarchs, a shadowy group of big businessman.

Not surprisingly, Goussinsky was not invited to Putin's meeting last week with 21 of these oligarchs, where Putin announced, to the great relief of all present, that the state would not revisit post-Soviet privatization deals that allowed these men to accumulate their wealth.

That Berezovsky was also not invited to the meeting prompted speculation that he, too was falling out of favor with Putin.

What this means for the future of Russian Jewry is also uncertain. Since he took power last year, Putin appears to have anointed the Lubavitch-dominated Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia as the representative of Russia's roughly 600,000 Jews. Some observers believe the federation and its leader, Rabbi Berel Lazar, are benefiting at the expense of Goussinsky, the Russian Jewish Congress and the country's longtime chief rabbi, Adolph Shayevich.