MOSCOW - Armed government agents in black ski masks yesterday raided the headquarters of the only major Russian newspaper and broadcast company that has been consistently critical of the Kremlin.
The event managed to be both stark and murky at the same time. Law enforcement agencies gave conflicting accounts as to what was going on and why.
The media company said the raid was pure politics and an attempt by the new government of President Vladimir V. Putin to shut down an independent voice.
The raiders told employees that they were from the tax police, but their insignia appeared to be taped onto their uniforms. Later, government spokesmen said they were from the General Prosecutor's office - but it appeared that other agencies played a role."It's all politics, to pressure Media-Most," said Sergei Parkhomenko, editor of the company's magazine Itogi. "The Kremlin believes there is only one real opposition now, and that is the Media-Most company and its holdings."
Media-Most is owned by Vladimir Gusinsky, one of the country's leading tycoons and an implacable foe of Boris Berezovsky, another press baron who has close ties to the Kremlin and to Putin.
About 40 investigators spent the day searching through files after initially herding all the employees into a cafeteria. Workers were later released one by one.
At 2 p.m., about five hours after the raid started, a car drove up to the rear of the building and it appeared that files might have been taken away.
Mikhail Berger, editor of the Media-Most newspaper Segodnya, said he believes the raid was related to an investigation by his staff into corruption in the Kremlin and the Federal Security Service, or FSB.
An FSB spokesman, Alexander Zdanovich, said his agency was "not directly related" to the raid and then denied that the action was politically motivated.
The search, he said, was part of a criminal investigation into possible privacy law violations by Media-Most employees. But the Itar-Tass news agency reported that the probe concerned a criminal case against officials in the Russian Finance Ministry.
Journalists with the company said they thought the raid had more to do with the FSB. Putin, a former chief of the FSB and, before that, a 15-year veteran of the KGB, has brought the security service to new prominence in Russia since coming to power.
Berger said he had learned that the target of his newspaper's investigation, Gen. Yuri Zaostrovsky, had demanded that authorities search the Segodnya offices and confiscate any incriminating files."I sent a letter to Putin - I met him several times and he impressed me as a supporter of a free press - and I asked him to intervene," Berger said, "The letter was sent April 27. Maybe what is happening today is the response to my letter."
Zaostrovsky, recently appointed deputy director of the FSB, is in charge of economic counter-intelligence. This gives him broad authority over the nation's banking system, Segodnya reported April 26.
The newspaper has also reported on the FSB's successful attempts to set up a system that allows it to intercept all e-mail in Russia.
The search at the Media-Most headquarters immediately inspired widespread speculation about Putin's new government and what its motives might be.
Putin has promised to crack down on criminality and reassert a "strong state" under central control. He has suggested that published criticism of the government's actions in Chechnya borders on treason."The KGB has come to power," the nationalist politician Vladimir Zhirinovsky said yesterday, as reported on the Media-Most television station, NTV."That's what Russia needs. One might as well get used to it. There will be arrests and searches every week."
Sergei Kirienko, a former prime minister who has led a group of liberal politicians into Putin's camp, arguing that they can have more influence from within than from without, worried that it was a provocation from inside the government. "It's an attempt to impose bad policy on the new administration," he said.
On the day when the Council of Europe decided to take no action against Russia over reports of human rights violations in Chechnya, a political analyst named Sergei Karaganov suggested that there were those within the government who didn't want warmer relations with the outside world, and that they had launched an overt attack on the press to scare off public opinion abroad."It's an attempt," he said, "to achieve international isolation for Russia from the inside."