KGB agents run scared by cracking down

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A group of Western scholars, in Moscow for a conference on Russia's future, had a long-standing appointment with President Vladimir Putin, which they were sure he would cancel because of the schoolhouse massacre in southern Russia on Sept. 1.

To their surprise, he sent word that he wanted to go ahead with the meeting, which he opened by saying, "This isn't the best time for me. But I owe it to you to answer your questions." That he proceeded to do for 3-1/2 hours until midnight. Mr. Putin clearly had some ideas about Russia's future after the bloody confrontation in Beslan, and clearly his ideas were meant for American ears.

Like President Bush after 9/11, Putin said his country was under attack. Like Mr. Bush, he reserved the right to take preemptive action. Like the American president, he was loud in his praise of the country's armed forces, who had put their lives on the line trying to save the children. Like Bush on Iraq, he labeled the attackers "terrorists."

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The Russian president had another message for America, subtly delivered but ominous. Saying that "we showed weakness and weak people are beaten," he reminded the world that Russia is still "one of the world's greatest nuclear powers."

He suggested that maybe he hadn't been tough enough. A lot of people look back to the Soviet era with nostalgia, he said. And then a reminder of how America justified the war in Vietnam. "You in the West should understand there's a domino theory here in the Caucasus.... Your security is at threat, not just Russia's.... Russia is on the front line."

It sounded like a hard-line policy in the making and a week later he announced a drastic overhaul of Russia's political system, centralizing power in his hands.

On the surface, Putin's reaction to the schoolhouse massacre resembles Bush's reaction to 9/11. The difference is that, in Russia, democratic institutions had not had time to establish themselves before the retreat to authoritarian rule began. Putin apparently assumes that Russians will sacrifice some freedom for more safety.

So, the Kremlin tightens controls over the news media, reduces parliament to a rubber stamp, and asserts authority over regional governments. The nervous twitch reaction is, in some ways, understandable. Russia has its own 1,000 milestone to observe - approximately the number killed in terrorist assaults, starting with the apartment house bombing in 1999 and continuing through airplane and Metro station bombings until Beslan Middle School No. 1 on Sept. 1.

Putin's move to tighten control on power creates a dilemma for the Bush administration. Suggestions from Washington that he seek a political solution with the Chechen separatists fall now on very stony soil. Putin told the group of Western academics that his answer to Bush is, "Why don't you meet with Osama bin Laden? Invite him to Brussels or the White House and engage in talks. Ask him what he wants and give it to him so he leaves you in peace."

That day on the ranch three years ago, when Bush said he looked into Putin's soul and liked what he saw, is a dim memory. An authoritarian ruler sees his regime trembling on the brink of destabilization and is running scared. Running scared for a KGB alumnus means cracking down on dissent. And what he wants from America is what he says he gave America after 9/11 - complete support.

He is not likely to get it. Secretary of State Colin Powell has expressed open concern about Russia "pulling back on some of the democratic reforms."

Daniel Schorr is the senior news analyst at National Public Radio.

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