Lessons From Behind Bars

An arrest in Russia, a release in China tell political tales

Single acts in the name of justice can offer insights about a nation.

Bill Clinton's impeachment, for instance, says something about honesty in America. Britain's detention of Augusto Pinochet, the ex-dictator of Chile, speaks of concern for human rights. Indonesia's arrest of former strongman Suharto reveals a respect for the rule of law.

This week, an arrest in Russia and the release of a dissident in China serve as windows on the primary concerns of leaders in those nations.

On Tuesday, the head of Russia's only major independent television station, NTV, was thrown into a Moscow jail on vague suspicions of embezzlement.

Vladimir Gusinsky's many media outlets have been critical in their commentary about Kremlin actions, such as war in Chechnya. President Clinton spoke on a Gusinsky radio station during a trip to Moscow, where he also warned President Vladimir Putin to respect freedom of the press.

Ironically or perhaps on purpose, the arrest came during Mr. Putin's tour of Europe, showing the fickleness of a democracy whose major political dynamic is the jockeying for power among oligarchs. If Putin did not have a hand in the arrest, then his ability to rule is in doubt. If he did, Russia's claim to be part of civilized Europe is also in doubt.

Whether Mr. Gusinsky is guilty or not in a country with a mushy legal system, he nonetheless is the Putin administration's first political target. The arrest hints at what Putin means by a "dictatorship of law" - use the law to knock off your opponents and to squelch free speech.

In China, Communist leaders are so corrupt that their worst fear is a worker uprising against official corruption. But they have released Zhang Jingsheng, a former factory worker who was sentenced in 1989 for organizing an independent trade union. The move comes just before a US Senate vote on granting permanent normal trading relations to China.

Perhaps Beijing knows it must bring the benefits of free trade quickly to workers, even at the risk of Mr. Zhang and others trying to bring open and honest government to China.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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