Vladimir Gusinsky, the Russian media magnate, has escaped the long arm of the law. The Russian General Prosecutor’s Office dropped charges of illegal privatization of state enterprises against the Kremlin’s chief nemesis, rescinding the freeze on his property and lifting a ban on foreign travel. Gusinsky promptly headed for his home in Spain. His NTV network was uncharacteristically restrained in its coverage of what should have been a triumphant moment. For months, the Kremlin had wielded its nightstick against the oligarch’s Media Most company: Gusinsky had made the serious mistake of supporting the “Fatherland” bloc against the Kremlin-backed “Unity” movement in parliamentary elections last fall. Moreover, Gusinsky had seriously misread the mood of Russian society: Both the general public and Russia’s elites took a dim view of his media’s criticisms of the Chechen campaign and its portrayal of President Vladimir Putin as a clumsy policeman with a Napoleon complex.

Rumors that Gusinsky had cut a deal with the Kremlin soon appeared in the Russian press. Some Kremlin sources have claimed that Gusinsky was allowed to leave the country only after he promised to toe the Kremlin “information line.” This is certainly plausible; Putin’s henchmen in the “power structures”—the police and security apparatus—have been pressuring journalists to jump aboard the “patriotic” bandwagon for some time. But there may have been another reason why “Gus” backed down. Attempting to expand his media empire to North America, Europe, and Israel (he is a dual Russian-Israeli citizen and heads the Russian Jewish Congress), Gusinsky has become buried under a mountain of debt—and one of the largest creditors just happens to be Gazprom, the partly state-owned gas monopoly. Certain people close to the Kremlin apparently saw an opportunity to seize control of NTV by forcing Gus to pay up with shares in his Media Most Company.

Western observers have misinterpreted moves against Gus and other magnates who have lost their Kremlin connections as evidence that Putin intends to destroy the oligarchs —the gangster tycoons who ruled the Kremlin roost under Yeltsin—and institute a “dictatorship of law.” Don’t bet on it. The “redivision of property” seized illegally or through insider deals during the Yeltsin years continues, and the likely beneficiaries of a “review of privatization” will be a narrow circle of “young oligarchs” such as 34-year-old Roman Abramovich, boss of the Sibneft oil company and the metallurgy monopoly, Russian Aluminum. Thus far, the “war on the oligarchs” has left the young Turks—who appear to have persuaded Putin that they are Russian patriots determined to rebuild their country’s industrial might—and their mentor, Boris A. Berezovsky (BAB), unscathed, raising the possibility that the broad elite coalition that brought Putin to power will break down.

Meanwhile, BAB has once again made some unexpected moves, announcing that he will resign his seat in the State Duma to organize a “constructive opposition” to what he considers disastrous political reforms. BAB’s announcement coincided with the renewal of ethnic unrest among his former constituents in the Caucasian Karachay-Cherkessk republic, a series of terrorist attacks on Russian soldiers in Chechnya, and rumors of divisions among Kremlin insiders. Those who know BAB best suspect that the master of intrigue may have caught wind of Abramovich’s alleged secret meetings with Alexander Voloshin, Putin’s chief of staff; the two young Turks have apparently decided that BAB has outlived his usefulness to the Kremlin. If “oligarch number two” (Gusinsky) could be toppled, why not “oligarch number one”?