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Monday, October 09, 2006

USA Today's Devastating Condemnation of Putin's Russia

Today's USA Today contains a brilliant editorial succinctly obliterating the Putin regime. This should be a model for all Western papers worldwide, who should speak with one voice in defense of their fallen colleague.

As democracy dies in Russia, another journalist is killed

On Saturday, an outspoken Russian journalist named Anna Politkovskaya, 48, was murdered, execution style, as she stepped out of the elevator in her apartment building. The trademark report she was preparing for today's edition of her newspaper, Novaya Gazeta- about alleged Russian war crimes in Chechnya, sure to anger the Kremlin yet again - will be published only in part. Some of the information died with her.

Politkovskaya's murder was at least the 12th killing of journalist who had angered the Kremlin during President Vladimir Putin's six years in power. The Kremlin response was eloquent: As of late Sunday it was silent, even as the United States expressed shock and the European Union called the crime "heinous."

Though nobody can make a direct link to the Kremlin, it is emblematic of the Stalin-lite control Putin has gradually wielded. The former KGB operative is systematically strangling the nascent Russian democracy in its crib. Some elements:

Silencing media critics. Putin has gradually closed down or taken state control of the most important media, particularly TV and radio. Politkovskaya's murder sends a further chilling message to those who would be brave or outspoken. It is likely to increase the timidity and self-censorship that are becoming a media hallmark.

Squelching rivals Two years ago, Putin tightened his grip on parliament and the regions by changing the rules. Governors are no longer elected: They are appointed by Putin. Independents are virtually barred from standing for seats. Wealthy oil oligarch Mihail Khodorkovsky, meanwhile, became a poster child for what happens when businessmen become too independent. After he began taking an interest in politics, his assets were seized, his company emasculated and he is imprisoned.

Menacing the neighbors. Recently, the former Soviet republic of Georgia arrested, then released, four Russian military officers on charges of spying. Since then, Moscow has been playing hardball. It has cut transportation and other links and has begun expelling Georgians. Georgia's U.S.-educated leader, Mikhail Saakashvili, wants to join NATO and intensify integration with the West. Preventing this in Georgia, the Ukraine and elsewhere is part of Putin's plan to bring Russia's "near abroad" back into a smothering embrace

There is a counterargument that Russian officials use often. It goes like this: After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia descended more into anarchy than democracy. The only way to bring some order was with the hand of a firm leader, even if that means some temporary anti-democratic measures.

Many Russians buy that argument: Putin has soaring popularity ratings.

In that, though, he equals the murderous former dictator Joseph Stalin. When Stalin died in 1953, the citizens he brutalized wept and the country came to a standstill for days. No doubt that's something Politkovskaya would point out were she still alive. Besides bravely exposing the truth of what is happening in Chechnya, she wrote a book critical of Putin. Her newspaper has offered a reward of about $1 million for information on her killing.

There is little hope it will be claimed.

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