A New Moscow Empire?

Both the Soviet Union of the 20th century and the Russian Empire of the 19th century weren't built by a weak central government.

That's why it is worth noting recent steps by Russia's new president, Vladimir Putin, that appear to tighten Moscow's power over both former Soviet states and the many entities inside the smaller Russian Federation.

Mr. Putin, a former Soviet spy, traveled south to two Central Asia, states in the last two weeks where he cut significant deals.

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In Turkmenistan, Putin tried to ensure that Russia gets large shipments of natural gas - enough to possibly undercut shipments to the West. In Uzbekistan, he promised aid to fight Islamic rebels. But he also seemed to proclaim an ally by saying "any threat to Uzbekistan is also a threat to" Russia. It was another step - such as having 25,000 troops near Tajikistan - hinting at empire building.

Such steps could just be seen as an attempt to ward off radical Islam and rebuild the Russian economy. But last week Putin also issued an executive fiat that reimposes Moscow's authority over Russia's 89 regions and republics by breaking the country into seven new administrative sections.

He also plans to diminish regional power in the upper house of parliament and, possibly, vest in himself the power to remove regional governors.

Many Russians applaud his determination to bring discipline to an unruly situation. At least 30 regions have laws that contradict the Constitution.

Others see the moves as evidence of an ingrained Russian inclination to assert dictatorial power from the Kremlin. His iron-fist policy in Chechnya feeds such concerns.

Powerful regional governors like those in Tartarstan or Bashkortostan may opt to wait out the chief executive's initial activism, betting that old bureaucratic sludge will set back in.

Assuming Putin will use the new power to bring desperately needed reforms, such as private property and and a legal system that fights oligarchs, he probably deserves support.

But Putin likes to talk about a "dictatorship of the law." That's a step up from the Marxist "dictatorship of the proletariat," but can still translate as undemocratic central control. In a country as sprawling and diverse as Russia (not unlike America in that regard), the rule of law could hinge on a workable balance of power between the center and far-flung regions and on a functioning democracy.

Such actions by Putin show Russia still has not fully chosen whether to recreate empires of old or truly seek domestic reforms.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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