Dusk in Moscow

September 19, 2004

WHO LOST RUSSIA? What happened to democracy?

President Vladimir V. Putin's response to the sickening Beslan bloodbath is to say he will do away with the election of regional governors and recon- figure the parliament to make it even harder for dissenting voices to gain a footing. His reaction is to trample on plurality and respect for his fellow citizens.

This would seem to have little or nothing to do with fighting terrorism, but there is a terrible logic to it. Mr. Putin's presidential career has been dedicated to the tightening of security against the enemies of the state, and as the attacks against Russia have nevertheless continued, growing ever more brazen and deadly, his reply again and again has been an expansion of central power -- futile as it may be.

And what sort of reaction does that provoke? A chilling one.

The United States government has offered only the most tepid protest against the antidemocratic moves in Moscow. The Bush administration has declared Russia to be an ally in the war on terror -- conveniently overlooking the unique complexities of Chechnya, and at the same time tolerating Russia's opposition to the American war in Iraq.

But friends deserve good advice. A reversion to autocracy is fundamentally wrong, and it poses great risks to the future not only of Russia but of the world. Each step Mr. Putin has taken up to now -- squeezing democrats out of the parliament, bringing the press to heel, hounding independent businessmen -- has done nothing to quell terrorist attacks on the Russian people. More of the same is unlikely to help.

And yet can an American government that has its own antiterror agenda, that jails its own citizens without charge or trial, that trumpets the encroachments of the Patriot Act, that runs a prison outside the law in Cuba and that has allowed the torture and humiliation of Iraqi prisoners -- can such a government criticize Russia's, and be taken seriously? To be sure, the offenses against liberty in the United States are a faint echo of those in Russia, but they are an echo all the same. We would argue, though, that standing by quietly only further diminishes America's standing; a forthright defense of democracy, when it's called for, is never wrong.

More deeply troubling has been the reaction in Russia itself.

Governors -- who, under Mr. Putin's plan, will be nominated by the Kremlin from now on -- have been lining up to heap praise on the president. In St. Petersburg, Gov. Valentina Matvienko said the new system will "improve the controllability of the state," according to the Itar-Tass news service. An aide to Ryazan's governor, Georgy Shpak, called the plan "absolutely correct." In Yaroslval, Gov. Anatoly Lisitsyn said that elected governors were too likely to be "pushed around" by voters.

This display is revolting, reminiscent of the fawning over Comrade Stalin in an earlier time, but sadly understandable. Does Mr. Shpak want to keep his job, or does he want to be an enemy of an increasingly powerful Kremlin?

On Monday, the secretary of Russia's security council announced that the government will be drafting a national mobilization plan for fighting terrorism. "This is not a campaign or a month of vigilance. It is a long-term plan," said Igor Ivanov -- a blueprint for endless war. The next day, one of the men who launched the antidemocratic coup attempt against Mikhail S. Gorbachev back in 1991, the former KGB Chairman Vladimir Kryuchkov, presented a new book to great fanfare in the state-controlled press and commented that the "special services" had been let down by the Russian people, who were not being vigilant enough. He said he has a term of respect for Mr. Putin: President Hope.

On Wednesday, on a distant but parallel front, the Kremlin announced that it will be consolidating much of the country's oil and gas production in a single company, Gazprom, of which the government will control 50 percent of the shares.

What is the thread that holds all this together? A belief in the defense of the state -- not of Russia, or of the Russian people, but of the state -- as paramount above all. Defenders of the plan to appoint governors from Moscow said that this would allow the "center" to keep better tabs on its far-flung realm.

Let's be fair. There is no question that Mr. Putin is popular. There is no question that even under the current system he can bring enormous pressures to bear upon governors, and that the Kremlin has successfully removed several. But two points deserve mentioning.

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