Slipping Backward in Russia?

Russian President Vladimir Putin has made no secret of his determination to establish administrative control over a country that in many ways seems almost ungovernable. His push toward a stronger state has a strong practical appeal, but in the context of Russia's still-fragile democracy - and its long history of authoritarianism - it also has troubling implications.

The question looms: Will Mr. Putin, reared politically in the KGB, slip back into methods at odds with the increased freedoms that have been the most positive facet of Russia's development over the past decade?

The raid by federal agents last week on the offices of Media-Most suggest the answer to that question could be "yes." The broadcast and print outlets owned by Media-Most have been firm critics of the government - and of Putin's scorched-earth policy in Chechnya, in particular. They've aired allegations of corruption at high levels in the Kremlin.

Human-rights and press-freedom groups in Moscow assert that the raid was essentially an effort to impose censorship by armed men in ski masks (see story on page 6). The government's explanation of the raid was sketchy and contradictory. The agents rifling through files and seizing "evidence" appeared to be fishing for whatever might be used against the company.

This move against opposition media casts a dark light on the Putin administration just as the new president is trying to reburnish Russia's image as a world power. He'll be meeting with President Clinton in Moscow in June to discuss security and economic issues. Washington and other Western capitals have liked much that Putin has said about continued economic reform in Russia. And Putin will need good relations with the West to advance an arms-control agenda critical to Russia.

Security cooperation, as well as economic ties, are important enough to receive attention, despite unfortunate shifts in Moscow back toward heavy-handed state control. The outlook would be much brightened, however, if Putin put the brakes on old, KGB-bred habits and learned to live with a diversity of views. His own legitimacy, abroad and at home, would benefit.

Russia's problems of economic instability, inefficient government, ingrained corruption, and diffuse regional authority require a strong hand. But that doesn't have to mean the iron hand of old. A better model, democracy and freedom, is available.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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