Russia's Muzzled Democracy
Ever since Vladimir Putin, a former KGB officer, became Russia's president, many have wondered if a return to Soviet ways was in the offing. Extreme pessimists see in his every move the death of Russian democracy. Extreme optimists say he is a democrat at heart.
The picture is fuzzier than that. But Mr. Putin's recent moves against the press and political opponents provide more evidence that his security advisers and the KGB veterans in his administration are gaining influence. With parliamentary elections in December and presidential elections next March, that's not good for democracy or Russia's economy.
Exhibit A: The Kremlin has gradually taken over independent television stations, silencing all critical broadcast voices. In one case, it chased the owner into exile and got a natural-gas company friendly to the Kremlin to buy the TV channel.
Exhibit B: The government recently walked in and took over the country's most respected independent polling agency. Its recent polling showed that less than one-third of Russians support the Chechnya war.
Exhibit C: With the kickoff of the electoral campaign last week, new restrictions for campaign coverage took effect. These appear to ban profiles of leading candidates, political analysis, and the forecasting of results - in other words, the staples of political reporting. A major newspaper is suing, saying the rules are unconstitutional.
Exhibit D: State prosecutors in July launched a criminal investigation into the huge Yukos oil company. This occurred just after its CEO, oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky, gave money to two democratic political parties for this fall's election campaign. It's doubtful authorities could launch such an inquiry without Putin's approval. Mr. Khodorkovsky has struck back by purchasing the Moscow News newspaper, long famous for its exposés of government wrongdoing.
Russia wants a modern economy, but its behavior creates uncertainty that drives away investors. It wants to be part of Europe and be treated as a democracy. Sooner or later, it has to start acting like one. That means leaving the press and opponents alone.