A British journalist was expelled from Russia apparently for probing the personal wealth of Kremlin supremo Vladimir Putin. However, the Russian Foreign Ministry offered to issue him a new visa in a sign of a possible split in Mr. Putin's ruling tandem with President Dmitry Medvedev.
The Guardian's Russia correspondent Luke Harding was stopped at a Moscow airport when he tried to re-enter Russia last Saturday after a two-month absence.
His visa was revoked and he was put back on a flight back to London after being told: “Russia is closed to you.”
It is the first time since the fall of Communism in Russia that an accredited Western journalist with a valid visa has been kicked out of the country.
In a rather lame explanation issued three days after the incident the Russian Foreign Ministry said Mr. Harding was denied entry because he had failed to collect his renewed press card before leaving Russia in December. The Ministry also offered to renew Mr. Harding's visa, if he wished to return to Russia.
Officials in Mr. Medvedev's administration were quoted as saying Mr. Harding's expulsion was a “misunderstanding” and blamed the incident on security services which had not consulted anyone. Russian security services are believed to be still controlled by Mr. Putin, who was in the past a career officer in the KGB secret service.
A Russian opposition politician believes that Mr. Harding had been victimised for helping probe corrupt links between Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and some Russian businessmen. Vladimir Milov said The Guardian correspondent had helped him and another opposition leader, Boris Nemtsov, prepare a report on Mr. Putin's 10 years in power.
The report said corruption flourished under Mr. Putin's presidency in 2000-2008 and that Mr. Putin was the “real beneficiary” of several oil-and-gas related companies “nominally” owned by his friends-turned-billionaires.
Mr. Harding concedes that he may have been punished for poking his nose into Mr. Putin's pocket.
“One can't write about the personal fortune of people in power here,” he told the Kommersant daily. “One can only write about corruption in abstract terms, without linking it to concrete persons.”
Discussion of the personal wealth of Mr. Putin and other Russian top leaders is a taboo few journalists dare to break.
Three years ago Mr. Harding wrote a story in The Guardian which said Mr. Putin's wealth could amount to $40 billion dollars.
“That was maybe the bravest — and the stupidest — story I did,” Mr. Harding admitted to a fellow journalist after his expulsion.