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Putin's Dangerous Path

October 31, 2003

It's hard to feel sympathy for Russia's industrial oligarchs. After communism's collapse, they bought up state industries in the 1990s at fire-sale prices and overnight became billionaires, even as many Russians were plunged into poverty. Still, President Vladimir V. Putin's arrest of oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky is no cause for joy.

Putin presents the recent seizure of Khodorkovsky by masked commandos as part of a judicial campaign against corruption. But the oil tycoon's real crime was supporting opposition political parties generously for the Dec. 7 parliamentary election and, even worse, hinting he might run for president himself. Putin's jailing of this tycoon helps consolidate his power before a March 2004 presidential election and crushes independent voices. Putin's top aide, Alexander S. Voloshin, has resigned in protest, angry at the increased power of KGB veterans in the Kremlin.

Putin has been dogged by his own KGB past since his 1999 election as president. Would he keep up Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin's shambling moves toward Western democracy or shift another way? Putin didn't really tip his hand at first, but in the last two years he has curbed Russia's liberalization by relying on the Federal Security Service, or FSB, the KGB's successor, to crack down on the media and big business. The siloviki, or men of power from the Kremlin's secret service faction, would slow, if not halt, the opening of Russia to foreign investment and closer ties with the West. Khodorkovsky had talked with ExxonMobil and ChevonTexaco about selling a chunk of his oil and gas outfit, Yukos.

Foreign companies won't sink money into building a better Russia unless they know that the rule of law prevails in Moscow. Kohodorkovsky's arrest is distinctly unhelpful on this account and provides an unsavory whiff of ancient Slavic anti-Semitism; the oligarchs whom Moscow has targeted, including Boris A. Berezovsky, are Jewish.

If Russian prosecutors pursue the oligarchs through the courts and other legal means, the U.S. and other countries would worry less and have fewer complaints.

If President Bush has such a great relationship with "Pootie-baby," he should tell him that some anxious Americans might look at Moscow's draconian actions and urge the Senate to forget about repealing the 1974 Jackson-Vanik Amendment. It makes Russia earn an annual waiver from the U.S. on human rights concerns in return for normal trade relations. What a dire move that would be, recalling truly nasty days in U.S.-Russian affairs. But after spending decades to rein in an ugly, rampaging Soviet bear, the United States and the rest of the world cannot let Russia retreat from reform.

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