- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 19, 2000

There was once a New Jersey mayor, Frank Hague of Jersey City, back in the 1930s who didn't like demonstrations against his boss rule. And so he ordered his police to break up such demos. To protests that he was violating the law, he had one reply: "I am the law."

I was reminded of this crude machine politician as I read a report in the Moscow Times of a series of interviews with Vladimir Putin, acting president of Russia and certain to win the upcoming presidential election March 26. These interviews have been assembled in a book, "Conversations with Vladimir Putin," now on sale in Russian bookstores. The Moscow Times headline on the interview was "Iron Putin."

Mr. Putin is no crude Jersey pol and he wouldn't dream of saying "I am the law." But he has made it quite clear that while there are now Russian courts, supposedly independent of other branches of government, Mr. Putin will have the final word of what the law is.

Keep in mind that this former KGB spy has appointed 10 identified former secret police officers to high government posts out of 24 such positions; that last December he and some of his friends toasted Stalin on the 120th birthday of Russia's master genocidist. In 1956, a Soviet leader named Nikita Khrushchev at the 20th Communist Party congress denounced Stalin. Mr. Putin salutes him. Third, Mr. Putin is an open admirer of Yuri Andropov, one time KGB head and later president of the U.S.S.R. Robert Conquest described Andropov as a "super-Stalinist."

When his interviewers taxed Mr. Putin with violating freedom of speech with the imprisonment during the Chechen civil war of Andrei Babitsky, a Radio Liberty correspondent, he replied:

"You and I understand the meaning of freedom of speech differently," Mr. Putin said when his interlocutors, Kommersant special correspondents Andrei Kolesnikov and Natalya Gevorkyan questioned his words. "If you understand this [to mean] direct participation in crimes, then I will never agree with this."

Mr. Putin's word play has a notorious predecessor, Maximilien Robespierre, who defended the Terror of the French Revolution with this remarkable concept: "The revolutionary government is the despotism of liberty against tyranny."

Mr. Babitsky has, according to Reuters, just been refused permission to travel to France to testify at a hearing to be convened next month by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe on alleged human rights abuses in Chechnya. In other words, Mr. Babitsky is under house arrest. But I'm sure Mr. Putin would find some more euphonious phrase.

Nikolai Petrov, described by the Moscow Times as a senior political analyst at the Moscow Carnegie Center, said that on the basis of these interviews it is clear Mr. Putin believes in his own interpretation of the law.

"It's clear from the interview that Putin identifies himself as representing the interests of the state and he decides what these interests are," he said. "In his constant call for the dictatorship of law, it seems Putin understands the dictatorship of people who've gained the right to set these laws. The interview is a clear illustration of his totalitarian leanings. He does not see things in pluralistic terms, but this has been ground into him during his time in the KGB."

Another example of Mr. Putin's penchant for word play was his praise for the informers who worked for the KGB during the days of the Soviet Union:

"You know that 90 percent of all information was gained with the help of agents among Soviet citizens? Agents work in the interests of the state."

The purpose of this KGB strategy was to destroy the normal trust among friends and family members. And that strategy worked. Kevin Klose, a Moscow correspondent during the heyday of the KGB, quoted a Russian friend: "When Westerners think of the KGB, they think of spies. When we think of the KGB we think of our neighbors."

Mr. Putin said that when he took over the Federal Security Service (FSB), the successor to the KGB, he searched out his file to see what his superiors thought of him. The only fault they could find, said Mr. Putin, was that he didn't have "a high enough recognition of danger," according to the Moscow Times.

From his behavior since accession to power as acting president last Jan. 1, one might say he has learned to recognize "danger." Such recognition does not bode well for the future of Russian democracy.

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