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MOSCOW — Surprise, surprise.

I landed in Washington in the last week of June just in time to learn that Gazprom-Media boss Alfred Kokh was also in town, doing some more image-polishing. My first thought upon hearing this was: “That’s the end of Ekho Moskvy. He’s here to do damage control in view of the upcoming G-7 meeting in Genoa, to announce his firm intention to make Russia’s best political radio station even more independent – under state patronage – than it was before.”

Last Wednesday I returned to Moscow just in time to learn that five of the station’s editors and 13 of its best journalists had resigned in protest over a new Gazprom move to acquire final and complete control over the only independent national broadcast organ left in Russia. Hardly a coincidence.

Time and again, we must give credit to President Vladimir Putin. At the recent Slovenia summit with U.S. President George W. Bush, Putin conducted the finest counterintelligence operation of his career. He managed to recruit Bush, even as he allowed his American counterpart to think that just the opposite had happened.

Now I’m wondering what Bush is going to say as a eulogy to Russia’s free press. “I trust him until he proves different,” as the president explained in a post-summit interview to? Too late for that, I guess.

He’s proven different? Fat chance. Both administrations are in the heavy bargaining stage of a process that might be called “missiles in exchange for the Baltics.” The essence is that Russia will quietly allow the United States to abrogate the 1972 Antiballistic Missile Treaty, while Bush will not insist on expanding NATO up to Russia’s borders and will leave the Baltic states out of the alliance.

But the approach adopted by Bush – read my lips, and in exchange I will close my eyes on everything else including the demolition of Russia’s free press – is a shortsighted one.

Likewise, it is shortsighted of Putin to think that he can reform Russia from the top down while keeping its nascent civil society silent. A free press, after all, is not just necessary for society at large, but for the authorities as well. The notion that somehow the security services can perform the function that a free press should be fulfilling was flatly refuted by the experience of the last decade of the Soviet regime.

After the Cold War ended and both countries started opening up their files, it became clear that the absence of a free flow of information wreaked harm on the leaders of both countries. Soviet leaders were deluded by false reports of the state of affairs across their own country by regional leaders eager to secure their own positions and gain promotion. It was his own need for real information that prompted Mikhail Gorbachev to push for glasnost, although the move came too late, since the country was already bankrupt.

This turned out to be news to the Americans as well. It seems that the United States wasted billions by relying on erroneous information about the Soviet Union coming from its own secret services. Even if Bush can’t bring himself to support democracy in Russia for Russians’ sake, he should at least realize that the absence of a free press in Russia could be very costly in real American taxpayer’s dollars.

That is why I think that the fate of the last truly independent broadcast media in Russia – where almost all the others are controlled either by the state directly or through its agents, including friendly oligarchs and state-controlled companies – should be an issue that is no less important than nuclear proliferation, missile defense, NATO expansion and the like.

The efforts of Ekho Moskvy‘s journalists to prevent Gazprom from taking control of their station should be loudly and unambiguously supported at the G-7 summit in Genoa. Ekho Moskvy is now the last bastion. If we surrender it, nothing will stop the country from rolling back and, as quickly as Russia became an open country – to the world’s amazement – again becoming a closed one.

It is simply naive to think that a “strong hand” will end corruption and tame the bureaucracy. We have lived through that before in Soviet times. Of course, democracy does not ensure lawfulness, but at least it gives it a fighting chance. Putin and Bush should stop gazing into each other’s souls. They should stop mouthing meaningless statements. They should open their history books and think about the past.

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