Sunday, November 28, 2004

The once and future authoritarian Russia

A New York Times editorial on the state of freedom of the press in Russia:
A recent analysis of press freedoms in the former Soviet Union by the Committee to Protect Journalists in New York has determined that only the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania cultivated an independent media. The remaining 12 nations have found ways to thwart, control or even kill journalists who dare to investigate the powerful.

The worst of the lot is Turkmenistan, where a dictatorial leader appoints editors and throttles independent voices. The autocratic leader of Belarus has driven the last independent newspaper out of print and onto the Internet, to which few of his citizens have access. Ukraine, where the latest election has drawn angry protesters into the streets, also has a questionable record on press freedoms. President Leonid Kuchma, whose chosen replacement is being touted as the winner in a faulty election, was implicated in 2001 in the unsolved killing of a journalist.

By far the most disappointing of the former republics, however, is Russia. As Ann Cooper, executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists, puts it, the message from the Kremlin is: "You can kill a journalist and get away with it."

Already, President Vladimir Putin's Russia has failed to solve the murders of 11 important journalists. The most recent was in July: Paul Klebnikov, an American editor at Forbes Russia, was gunned down outside his office in Moscow.

Economic freedom isn't doing any better. The Financial Times on the destruction of Yukos:
Whatever the outcome the latest move by the company's managers signals the approaching finale of one of the most dramatic sagas in the short history of Russian capitalism. It started 16 months ago with the arrest of two key shareholders the oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky and close associate Platon Lebedev who are standing trial for tax evasion and fraud.

The attack was seen largely as politically motivated and investors were initially prepared to separate the action against the shareholder from the company.

But over the past year Yukos, once the largest and most profitable Russian oil company, has been reduced to the most plagued stock in the market.

Its market capitalisation has fallen from more than $30bn (€22.5bn; £16bn) to $2bn, its tax liabilities climbed to $25bn and Yuganskneftegas, its main production asset, is being put up for a forced sale at $8.6bn, well below its fair value of $15bn estimated by Dresdner Kleinwort Wasserstein. The planned merger between Yukos and Sibneft to create a world leader is a distant memory.

Background on the Yukos Affair here, published Nov. 2003:
YUKOS has become Russia's most successful oil company. Just a month ago, it merged with Sibneft to form the world's fourth largest oil company. It introduced Western accounting standards and management, pioneered shipping Russian oil to the U.S. market, and launched a private consortium to build a pipeline from western Siberia to the arctic port of Murmansk. It has also bought hundreds of millions of dollars worth of U.S. oil equipment. Over the years, YUKOS paid billions of dollars in taxes and gave hundreds of millions to charity. It was also the company most independent from the government, and the attack on YUKOS suggests that other companies may soon be on the chopping block.

Politically well-connected businessmen, associated with government-dominated oil companies and banks, have conspired to dismantle YUKOS by bringing apparently trumped-up charges of past irregularities against YUKOS's principal shareholders.
With the attack on YUKOS, the ex-KGB faction in the Kremlin has reverted to state-led repression against private capital and independent power centers. A crackdown on the independent media has been going on for three years.

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