- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 9, 2000

Though Vladimir Putin's inauguration as Russia's second president has opened a new era in Russian history, the outlines of at least some aspects of that new era seem all too familiar. Despite President Putin's repeated assurances that he is committed to democracy and a free press in his country, the actions of his government both before and after his election suggest otherwise. As June's U.S.-Russia summit in Moscow approaches, we can only hope that the Clinton administration gives these events the attention they deserve and resists its perennial temptation to whitewash developments in Russia to burnish the Clinton legacy.

It is already well-known that Mr. Putin's government sharply restricted both Russian and foreign media access to Chechnya almost immediately after sending the Russian military into the rebellious province. More recently, as the Russian campaign has stalled and Chechen guerrilla attacks increase, the Kremlin has begun to crack down on newspapers that suggest a political settlement may be possible. Just recently, the new Russian Ministry of Press, TV and Radio Broadcasting, and Mass Communications formally warned two prominent newspapers, Kommersant and Novaya Gazeta, for publishing interviews with Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov. A second such warning would allow the government to shut them down. According to a source at Novaya Gazeta, the government has also intimidated key Russian broadcast media to prevent the airing of their interview with Mr. Maskhadov.

The warnings follow a declaration last month by Press Minister Mikhail Lesin that Russia's law on terrorism "prohibits mass media from giving propaganda opportunities both to terrorists and people suspected of involvement in activities which fall under the category of terrorist acts." Using almost Soviet double-talk, another ministry official said that Russian journalists could meet and interview Chechen rebels so long as they do not disseminate materials which "justify" terrorist activities. By this logic, interviews with the Chechen leaders may be published or broadcast only if they do not attempt to explain the Chechens' views.

The government's sharp reaction to the publication of the Maskhadov interviews is particularly striking given their content, which is not particularly new. In the Novaya Gazeta interview, for example, the Chechen president blames an alliance of the notorious oligarch Boris Berezovsky, unnamed Russian officials and "rogue" Chechen commanders for the apartment bombings and attacks in Dagestan that provoked the Russian intervention a suggestion he and others have already made several times, including in the Russian media. Mr. Maskhadov also asserts that he is in full control of the Chechen forces and calls for talks with Mr. Putin to end the war. None of this is new.

Although proposing a negotiated settlement to the conflict may be inconvenient for the "war faction" in the Russian government, it hardly seems sufficiently threatening to justify warning the two papers. In fact, it should be quite easy for the government to dismiss Mr. Maskhadov's plea for peace; after all, the interview included no specific proposals and his claim to control the Chechen forces is questionable.

Looking back at recent reporting in Novaya Gazeta, however, one can understand why Mr. Putin or his associates could want to close its doors. For example, earlier this year, the paper ran several stories about suspicious events in Ryazan, a provincial Russian city, at the time of last year's apartment bombings that contributed to initial public support for the Chechnya intervention. In brief, the reporting alleged that Russian security services might have attempted to stage a bombing in the city to further rally public opinion for the war. While most dismiss the story as an unsupported conspiracy theory, it has received widespread attention. Mr. Putin himself said "to even speculate about this is immoral and in essence none other than an element of the information war against Russia."

Novaya Gazeta has also recently carried several reports on alleged massive campaign-finance violations by Boris Yeltsin in 1996 and Mr. Putin in 2000. Curiously, the March issue that was to include these stories was delayed by several days after unidentified hackers broke into the paper's computer system and destroyed the entire issue. Some at Novaya Gazeta argue that the Federal Security Service, which Mr. Putin previously led, was responsible for the cyber attack. The paper has also questioned aspects of Mr. Putin's background in St. Petersburg and investigated corruption allegations against Mikhail Kasyanov, the first deputy prime minister who many speculate will head the Russian government under Mr. Putin. Its deputy editor, Yuri Shchekochikhin, is a prominent Russian parliamentarian with strong democratic credentials. Formerly a muckraking journalist himself, Mr. Shchekochikhin now chairs a Duma subcommittee that oversees corruption investigations.

Mr. Putin's KGB background and his ruthlessness in defending the Yeltsin regime and prosecuting the war in Chechnya raise serious questions about Russia's future under his leadership. Moreover, the government's treatment of the media since Mr. Putin became prime minister has been unprecedented in post-independence Russia.

Nevertheless, Mr. Putin is also a relatively inexperienced leader who holds responsibilities far more significant than any that he has previously carried. Once he formally takes office and appoints a government, the Kremlin is likely to launch a number of new initiatives to demonstrate that Russia has, in fact, turned the corner and merits new political and economic support as well as significant foreign investment. While there may be much promise in many of these new developments and Mr. Putin still deserves to be given the opportunity to prove himself it is essential that the United States not be blinded to events within Russia that may be considerably less attractive. The new Russian president should be neither demonized nor lionized, but watched.

Paul J. Saunders is director of The Nixon Center. His e-mail address is psaunders@nixoncenter.org.

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