Commentary: Let's Face It: Putin Is A Threat To Democracy

An unfriendly media baron is detained without charges for three nights in a Czarist-era Moscow jail. Popularly elected governors are told they might be fired. Former KGB officers are put in charge of new administrative districts.

The pattern in Vladimir Putin's Russia is depressingly familiar. By punishing his enemies and trying to intimidate everyone else, Putin is seeking to establish himself as a soft dictator, if not a boot-heeled Stalin. There should be no more illusions: Putin's regime is a threat to liberal government and liberal political values.

Putin was elected President three months ago. But the election itself was a farce. The real pivot of power came at the end of last year, when an ailing Boris Yeltsin abruptly resigned and installed then-Prime Minister Putin as acting President. Aided by a propaganda campaign launched by state-controlled media, the unknown Putin, a former KGB agent, easily bested a feeble slate of candidates. He offered no political program other than support for Russia's war to subdue the breakaway republic of Chechnya.

LONGTIME SPY. Belatedly awakened to Putin's authoritarian streak by the recent arrest of media lord Vladimir A. Gusinsky, a Kremlin critic, the West still doesn't quite get it. Putin's goal is not simply to muzzle the press. It is nothing less than to consolidate all organs of political power and potential opposition into the hands of the Kremlin. His chief ally is the secret-service community in which he spent his career.

By decree, he already has divided Russia into seven large administrative districts, five led by police or military officials, including a pair of ex-KGBers. He has also established the Kremlin-backed Unity Party as the party of power in Russia. The goal is to recruit local political elites, governors included, into Unity's ranks. This initiative threatens to stifle the development of genuine political parties in Russia.

This has not yet turned into a cult of personality. But poking fun at the President is frowned upon. What drives the Kremlin nuts about Gusinsky is that his NTV television network features a weekly political satire, Kukly, that turns the political elite, Putin included, into bumbling, conniving puppets. Irreverence, of course, can be a devastating enemy of authoritarian rule. The new political fault line is simple: Either you're with the Kremlin or against it.

That message is now clear to Russia's business titans. In a rare show of unity, 17 of them came together to draft a letter protesting Gusinsky's arrest as anti-democratic. Even oligarch Boris A. Berezovsky, who didn't sign the letter and who has tight connections to Kremlin aides, seems to be concerned. Asked if he feared an arrest or a crackdown on his business interests, he told Business Week: "I'm always worried."

Preoccupied with consolidating his power at home, Putin is not seeking a new cold war confrontation with the West. Indeed, on the economic-policy front, he is adopting liberal policies on such issues as tax reform. So now is the time for the West to exert what leverage it has over Russia. And it does have some. Putin wants foreign investment. After an outcry from the U.S. and other quarters, the President belatedly criticized Gusinsky's arrest as "excessive" and the media magnate was then let out of jail. It couldn't have hurt that Robert Strauss, a former U.S. ambassador to Russia, canceled his visit to Moscow with American executives to explore investment opportunities. Such pressure may not in the end thwart Putin, but at least the West won't be complicit in the construction of his autocratic edifice.

Putin seems to believe that the Russian people want to be led by a post-millennium czar. "Russia was founded as a super-centralized state from the very start," he declared before his March election. "This is inherent in its genetic code, traditions, and people's mentality." True, most ordinary Russians believe that what they want doesn't matter. There is no tradition of grassroots political activism in Russia, and today's citizens widely feel disenfranchised. But it's time now for voices to be raised.

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