The Ominous Return of Putin's Media Enforcer

The recent return of Vladimir Putin’s longtime éminence grise, Vladislav Surkov, to the Kremlin was widely discussed in the media. Much less noticed was the appointment of Mikhail Lesin, Putin’s former information minister, as the new head of Gazprom-Media, Russia’s largest—and de facto state-run—media group, which incorporates several broadcast, print, and online outlets. Lesin’s return to a senior position is no less symbolic than that of Surkov—and says a lot about the Kremlin’s plans for Russia’s few remaining uncensored media.

Lesin was a central figure in the early Putin years, spearheading the Kremlin’s effort to silence the country’s independent television—the first step in the consolidation of authoritarian rule. The first target was NTV, at that time Russia’s largest and most popular independent TV channel, whose hard-hitting news broadcasts, talk shows, and satirical programs criticized the government over growing corruption and the war in Chechnya and gave airtime to the opposition. In June 2000, a month after Putin’s inauguration, NTV’s founder and majority shareholder, Vladimir Gusinsky, was arrested and placed in Moscow’s infamous Butyrka prison. While he was there, the information minister made an offer: Gusinsky could have his freedom if he agreed to transfer his media holdings to Gazprom, the state-owned energy monopoly. On July 20, 2000, while still under a prosecutorial recognizance, Gusinsky signed a deal to sell his media outlets to Gazprom that included “Annex 6,” which provided for the “termination of the criminal prosecution against Mr Vladimir Aleksandrovich Gusinskiy in connection with the criminal case initiated against him on 13 June 2000, his reclassification as a witness in the said case and suspension of the precautionary measure prohibiting him from leaving [the country].” “Annex 6” was personally signed by Information Minister Mikhail Lesin.

In its 2004 ruling, the European Court of Human Rights found the NTV owner’s arrest to have been politically motivated and in violation of the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, emphasizing in particular that “the facts that Gazprom asked the applicant to sign the July agreement when he was in prison, that a State minister [Lesin] endorsed such an agreement with his signature, and that a State investigating officer later implemented that agreement by dropping the charges strongly suggest that the applicant’s prosecution was used to intimidate him.”

In the end, Gusinsky refused to give up NTV (once out of Russia, he annulled the deal as having been signed under duress). The offices of Russia’s largest independent television channel were forcibly taken over by Gazprom-installed security guards in the early hours of April 14, 2001. TV6, a smaller independent channel that sheltered former NTV journalists, was shut down by the authorities in January 2002. The journalists found another short-lived home in TVS, Russia’s last nationwide independent television channel, which was taken off the air in June 2003. By this time, the regime no longer cared for appearances and saw no need to hide behind “legal” decisions of obedient courts: the TVS signal was switched off by a direct order of Information Minister Mikhail Lesin, who cited “viewers’ interests” as the reason for the decision.

After this state campaign against major media outlets, Lesin left the spotlight, only occasionally surfacing in the news—for instance, when he co-founded RT, the Kremlin’s English-language propaganda mouthpiece. His return as the new director general of Gazprom-Media could signal another attack on media pluralism in Russia. A likely target could be Ekho Moskvy radio, which, unlike other Gazprom-Media outlets (including the present pro-Kremlin NTV), continues to maintain an independent editorial line and invite opposition leaders to its studios. Many in the Russian media community took Lesin’s appointment as a grim sign.

Interestingly, Lesin may become one of the first senior Putin regime officials to face consequences for his involvement in human rights abuses. Earlier this year, civil society groups reportedly proposed Lesin’s name for inclusion in the US blacklist under the Magnitsky Act, which provides for visa bans and asset freezes for Russian officials involved in human rights violations. The next update of the US list may come in December. Meanwhile, sources in the European Parliament indicate that Lesin may be placed on a European Union visa blacklist. This would come as bad news to Putin’s media enforcer: according to the newspaper Helsingin Sanomat, Lesin owns a 2 million–euro estate in Finland’s Turku Archipelago, purchased through a company registered in the British Virgin Islands. This would indeed be a timely and appropriate message—that helping a dictatorship to muzzle the free media and enjoying the comfort of the Western world are no longer compatible.

Photo Credit: kremlin.ru

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