A Russia of Yesteryear?

Remember "backwards day" at camp or school, when kids wore their clothes the wrong way around as a lark?

It's backwards time in Russia, and that's not a joke. This year's questionable presidential election, and the recent fatal gunning down of a respected American investigative reporter and editor in Moscow, indicate continued erosion of democracy in government and the media.

Now the nascent market economy is under attack, as the government is expected to buy back more in private assets this year than it's selling in state assets, a first since the 1991 fall of the Soviet Union.

President Vladimir Putin insists he's not renationalizing industry. But if not that, then what would one call the government's aim to repurchase a majority stake in the country's biggest natural-gas concern? It also has suspended plans to privatize the state electricity monopoly, and delayed selling its majority share in a key state-owned telecommunications firm.

Meanwhile, it's moving to rescue (buy) a troubled bank, and to seize the assets of Yukos Oil, whose former chief executive is on trial for alleged fraud and tax evasion. The government says Yukos owes back taxes of $7 billion. The Yukos case is interesting because it harks back to the wild-west 1990s, when Boris Yeltsin's government sold off industries to Kremlin pals. This spawned Russia's "oligarchs," who became billionaires from these murky deals. In his defense last week, Yukos founder Mikhail Khodorkovsky said he simply took advantage of the loose laws of the time.

President Putin clearly wants to reform the economy, and the oligarchs are a legitimate target. But Putin's apparent solution of more state control, which dampens innovation and spurs corruption and cronyism, is not the right corrective tool. Neither is singling out Yukos. And besides, the trial seems like retribution for Mr. Khodorkovsky's political challenge to Putin.

State auditors are reviewing the 1990s sell-offs, and have determined that the state lost $1.6 billion in undervalued or illegitimate deals. But if the state's gone this far, couldn't it revalue the deals and make the oligarchs pay their fair price? Neither does the state have to own industry to profit from it (taxes are the normal tool for this).

Russia's financial markets are nervous. What will calm investors is a fair settlement with Yukos, not a show trial; and more progressive business laws, not a rollback to a failed socialist past.

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