- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 8, 2000

Canary in a coal mine that's the state of the Russian press today. The new Russian leadership under acting President Vladimir Putin culminating in a Potemkin election taking place March 26 is slowly sucking the oxygen of free expression out of Russia. When that is gone, Mr. Putin will undoubtedly set his sights on other hard-won rights of the Russian people. All this barely 10 years after the fall of the Soviet Union.

Somehow, the only people who don't seem to get it are the president of the United States and the secretary of state (well, perhaps a few woolly-headed European leaders, too). Mr. Clinton has welcomed Mr. Putin as "a man we can do business with" and Mrs. Albright has applauded his "can-do" attitude. Really.

Only three months have passed since the dramatic New Year's resignation of Boris Yeltsin, but the ruthlessly steely performance of his chosen successor rather makes you nostalgic for the alcoholic, bumbling and unpredictable former president. For a while, at least, his heart was in the right place. As Thomas Dine, director of Radio Liberty/Radio Free Europe put it during a recent visit to The Washington Times, "One of Boris Yeltsin's first acts was to invite Radio Liberty to Moscow to open a bureau. The first act of Vladimir Putin involved the capture of Andrei Babitsky," a Radio Liberty reporter who was captured by the Russians in mid-January and only released last week after a harrowing ordeal. It was surely a preview of things to come.

Mr. Putin, a former KGB man himself, has packed his cabinet with graduates of the Yuri Andropov secret service, and he has created alliances with the communists in the Duma. At the former KGB headquarters in Moscow, the bust of Andropov is back on its pedestal, restored to former glory at Mr. Putin's bequest in a ceremony in December where the acting president, by the way, took the opportunity to raise a glass to good old Josef Stalin. Thin-lipped and unsmiling, he speaks of the need for central control, and is demonstrating what he means by that in the genocidal Russian campaign in Chechnya. "Why did the Soviet Union break up?" he asked in an interview in December. Not because the communist system failed or the peoples of the Soviet Union wanted to shed their yoke of oppression, but because of "laxness."

"If we continue like this, Russia will fall to pieces," he said. The man practically cries out for Freudian analysis.

Western-minded reformers who rotated in and out of Mr. Yeltsin's various governments have deserted his successor in droves. Liberals who initially grasped at Mr. Putin's coattails in the last parliamentary election, are now saying they will back no one in the first round of the presidential election. This includes well-known names like Anatoly Chubais, Yegor Gaidar and Boris Nemtsov.

Mr. Putin has set about reassembling the power of the state, controlling the press, while at the same time speaking of progressive economic reforms. It is a combination that will surely prove impossible to achieve. In fact, one Russia expert calls the Putin Cabinet "incompetent totalitarian wannabes." What will happen when you attempt to reimpose central control in Russia of the third millennium is a question that will be answered in the fairly near future.

At a gathering on Capitol Hill last week, Vladimir Gusinsky, head of the only independent Russian television broadcaster, NTV, told of the sudden re-emergence of political commissars in the offices of media and other enterprises. "I told my people they should have out the man on the air, and interviewed him," Mr. Gusinsky said, displaying a commendable lack of respect for the new political class. Asked what kind of ideology might be enforced under the Putin regime, assuming that old-style communism is a thing of the past, Mr. Gusinsky said it didn't really matter. "Nationalism, communist nationalism, it's all the same. They want power and any ideology will do."

During the second Chechen war of the 1990s, press coverage has been much what the government wanted it to be, an important reason for Mr. Putin's nationalistic appeal to ordinary Russians. Few media outlets have told the gruesome truth, such as NTV, which is finding itself under growing attack; the German television station that brought out images of mass graves; and Radio Liberty whose three reporters on the ground risked life and limb to bring out the story. Mr. Babitsky clearly got under the skin of the Russian authorities.

Even though Mr. Babitsky has been released after foreign pressure on the Russian government, he is not yet really free. Mr. Babitsky said yesterday in Moscow that Russia will not allow him to leave the country to speak to the Council of Europe, which is considering expulsion of Russia as a consequence of the massacres in Chechnya. As Mr. Dine said of the Babitsky case, "We are not only dealing with the life of a human being here, but also with a Russian government that wants to repress freedom of expression. Putin and his lieutenants are up to the old Soviet ways."

But Russians may not take so easily to those old ways again. Recently over 3,000 of them demonstrated in favor of human rights in Pushkin Square, the first such demonstration since the end of the Cold War. As we did then, we owe them our support and that goes for the Russian free media as well.

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