You don't jail your critics in a democracy, Mr Putin

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The Independent Online

The refusal by the Russian media tycoon Boris Berezovsky to return to Moscow for a court hearing yesterday means that two of Russia's most powerful billionaires are now in self-imposed exile. On Monday, Vladimir Gusinsky, another media magnate, failed to turn up for questioning in Moscow, prompting the prosecutor to issue a warrant for his arrest on embezzlement charges. Mr Gusinsky remains abroad "in Europe". Both men are out of the country for the same reason: they do not trust the Russian courts.

The refusal by the Russian media tycoon Boris Berezovsky to return to Moscow for a court hearing yesterday means that two of Russia's most powerful billionaires are now in self-imposed exile. On Monday, Vladimir Gusinsky, another media magnate, failed to turn up for questioning in Moscow, prompting the prosecutor to issue a warrant for his arrest on embezzlement charges. Mr Gusinsky remains abroad "in Europe". Both men are out of the country for the same reason: they do not trust the Russian courts.

Mr Berezovsky said it was "a difficult decision" when he refused to testify in connection with a profits-skimming case involving the Russian airline, Aeroflot.

In normal circumstances, one would have little sympathy for super-rich businessmen who feel entitled to ignore a prosecutor's summons. If the businessmen have been rumbled in some aspect of their dubious practices, then it would seem to be their absolute duty to return to Russia to face the music.

These are not, however, normal circumstances. It is true that Messrs Gusinsky and Berezovsky became rich in dubious circumstances (and with the connivance of the government) in what has been described as the sale of the century, when much of Russia was privatised. But few can doubt the tycoons' essential point: that the accusations levelled against them have more to do with the settling of political scores than with business malpractice.

Like America's robber barons a century ago, the oligarchs - as Mr Berezovsky, Mr Gusinsky and their wealthy ilk are collectively known - wield huge political clout. They have also, however, helped push forward the reforms that Russia so desperately needs. The real problem is that Mr Gusinsky's empire includes NTV, the main independent Russian TV station - which is often at odds with the Kremlin. Mr Berezovsky controls 49 per cent of one of the two main state television networks. Both men own influential daily newspapers.

It is no secret that the Kremlin loathes all criticism. President Vladimir Putin talks about the need for economic reform - "liberalisation in all areas" as he put it yesterday. But if Mr Putin is ready to take steps against media that dare to criticise the government - for that is what the latest legal action is all about - then the prospects for a saner, more stable Russia are dim.

Mr Gusinsky and Mr Berezovsky may not be perfect heroes. But nor are they villains. Mr Putin must understand: seeking to jail your critics is no way to run a country.

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