Kommersant Swallowed Whole

Another domino falls. Another symbol, if not the representative of Russian independent media, has been scooped up by a Kremlin ally. The business daily, Kommsersant was sold this week for $300 million to Alisher Usmanov. Usmanov is the owner of Owner of Oskol Steel Mill, the Ural Steel industrial complex, the Lebedinsky Iron Ore Mining and Processing Facility, and Mikhailovsky GOK (he and his partner Vasiliy Anisimov acquired the latter in the beginner of 2005. Ranked the 25th richest man in Russia and the 278th in the world by Forbes with a net worth of $2.6 billion, the 52 year old oligarch of metals and mining is now moving some of his investment into media. “This is my personal deal, my personal investments,” Usmanov told Kommersant. “The media business has always interested me and I decided to try to do it.” He then stated that he didn’t have any intention to influence the paper editorial policy. But venturing into the saturated world of media is all fine and dandy. Every good billionaire needs the press on his side. The problem however is that Kommersant is arguably Russia best newspaper. Well known and respected for its economic and political analysis, the paper has no problem launching salvos over the Kremlin’s bow. With proceeds expected to reach $70.4 million, with $15 million in net profit, Kommersant serves as both a sound economic and political investment.

This is why there is legitimate concern that Usmanov’s business ties means that the paper’s independent and bold editorial office will become yet another media outlet controlled, directly or by proxy, by the Kremlin. Under his tenor, the Russian television stations RTR, NTV, and Media-Most have fallen Putin’s grip.

One many try to assuage concerns over Kommersant editorial policy with the fact that the paper has already been owned by two billionaires. However, such an attempt can be quickly disgarded. Russia’s oligarch-in-exile Boris Berezovsky was the paper’s first owner. He sold it in February to business partner and Georgian entrepreneur Badri Patarkatsishvili. Both of these, however, are no Kremlin ally. The former had to flee to France to avoid the fate of ex-Yukos owner, Mikhail Khodorkovsky. The latter is even considered an oppositionist in Rose revolutionary Georgia. Neither proved detrimental to the daily’s content.

For his part, Usmanov is securely set in the Kremlin business allies. He runs a metal subsidiary of Gazprom, the state owned global natural gas giant. It is for this reason that many media watchdogs have suggested that the purchase was at the Kremlin’s behest. Usmanov denies this even though he freely admits that, “No one asked me to buy the publisher, although I should say that my purchase of it was not against the wishes of the authorities. Demyan Kudryavtsev, the general director of Kommersant Publishing House assured readers that Usmanov “doesn’t intend to interfere in editorial policy.” The paper’s editor, Vladislav Borodulin, struck a more cautious note. “Before speculating on this, I must meet with the new owner[Alisher Usmanov.] The meeting is likely to take place after September15. Only afterwards could we speculate on what they want and what they expect of the staff,”

I don’t buy such assurances. Especially given the irony that the sale came a few days after the paper published a commentary by former Prime Minister, presidential hopeful, leader of the People’s Democratic Union, and Kremlin foe, Mikhail Kasyanov. The commentary was a blistering critique of Russian democracy, freedom of speech, corruption, the centralized economy and its reliance on energy exports. His words hit at the heart of Putin and the Russian State’s direction and political legitimacy. Kasyanov wrote:

“Strong authority should be legitimate – legally elected in free and just elections. Will authority be legitimate if elected in conditions of total political monopoly, gutted election laws and repeated irregularities? Will the so-called technical successor that they are promising to appoint for us be legitimate? The answer is unambiguous. No. But illegitimate authority will unavoidably continue to lose its position within the country and abroad as it vainly tries to buy legitimate authority. Authority of that kind cannot make Russia strong or free. It will conclusively set Russia’s place among the countries of the Third World. That is the unavoidable atonement for pursuing a course as a resources superpower.”

Such a critique is not without historical legacy. It is part of a long controversy in Russia between Westernizers and Slavophiles. One can say that Russia’s intellectual and political elite continue to follow this intellectual binary. The former calls for Russia to emulate the West, and learn from Enlightenment thought and humanism. The latter claims that Russia has it own particular path to follow. Russia must continue to embody Russian culture, tradition, and religion whatever kind of society it becomes. Myraids of famous Russian historical figures can be classified along these lines. Peter the Great as a Westernizer. Nicholas I was a Slavophile. Stalin was both, a Westerner who became a Slavophile when he Russified Marxism. Russian intellectual giants Alexander Herzen, Pitor Chaadev and Vissarion Belinsky were philosophically opposed to Aleksei Khomiakov, Ivan Kireevski, and Nikolai Gogol. It seems as if every Russian intellectual has to have an opinion on Chaadaev’s introductory paragraph of his infamous “Apology of a Madman” (1831). He wrote,

“One of the most deplorable things in our strange civilization is that we still have to discover the truths often very trivial ones, which other, even less advanced people discovered long ago. We have never moved in concert with other peoples; we do not belong tp any of the great families of mankind. We are not part of the Occident, nor are we part of the Orient; and we don’t have the traditions of the one or of the other. Since we are placed somewhat outside of the times, the universal education of mankind has not reached us . . .”

Looking at Kasyanov’s “Empire of Freedom” and Vladislav Surkov’s “sovereign democracy,” one hears echoes of the Occident-Orient debate in the politics of present day Russia.

The sale of Kommersant could be yet another hit against the Westernizers. With a new cold war with the United States at a chill, the scent of “colored revolutions” still in the air and, more importantly, Duma elections in 2007 and a Presidential election in 2008, such a move will further smooth Putin and United Russian consolidation of power even though a serious challenge to their hegemony is absent. Whatever Kommersant’s fate, I think we can already score another for Putin’s Slavophiles.