Russian Housecleaning

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As if it were wielding a broom, the Kremlin is busily sweeping away its political opposition - clearing the path for a friendly candidate to succeed Russian President Vladimir Putin, who is constitutionally barred from running again in 2008.

It's doing this by wrongly applying legal tools - the judicial branch and Kremlin-friendly parliament - for political purposes.

In a case that echoes that of oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, jailed this year for fraud, the government is now investigating former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov. On Friday, Russia's deputy prosecutor general accused Mr. Kasyanov - an undeclared yet much touted presidential candidate - of paying only a "symbolic amount" to purchase a state-owned luxury villa while he was premier.

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Kasyanov has close ties to Russia's oligarchs, and, like his oil friend, it's highly unlikely this charismatic politician has a corruption-free past (his early nickname: "Misha 2 percent"). But what's the motive for singling him out when corruption is so widely practiced by Russia's government and business elite? Could it be that, like Mr. Khodorkovsky, Kasyanov was becoming a political threat to Mr. Putin and his government?

Sacked by Putin in 2004, Kasyanov has publicly complained that Russia is on the "wrong track." His February announcement that he wanted to help unite his country's disparate political opposition forces led to speculation he'd seek the presidency - speculation he didn't discourage.

Kasyanov's vocal concerns over Russia's backsliding on democratic values and the fact that its economy is too nationalist must have set off alarm bells. Indeed, it was a pro-Kremlin lawmaker who requested the investigation.

While the judiciary is singling out Kasyanov, the parliament has been tightening election laws to the opposition's disadvantage.

Last week, the upper house passed a series of changes that raise the threshold for parties to gain seats in parliament from 5 to 7 percent of the vote. It also disallows them from forming voting blocs previous to an election. Domestic independent observers, including journalists, will no longer be allowed to monitor ballot counts. Kasyanov says the changed law, which awaits Putin's signature, "practically establishes a monopoly of power."

Considering the flaws of the last presidential election, as well as past sidelining of opponents, these steps shouldn't surprise anyone.

But the Kremlin wrongly sees them as a protection. Reinforcing its walls against outside critics merely shuts out the healthy exchange of ideas necessary to move Russia forward.

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