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Washington Times
November 29, 2001
Putin's power grab

On the same day that Russian President Vladimir Putin bolstered his support of America's anti-Taliban campaign in Afghanistan, a Moscow court dealt a decisive blow to Russia's freedom of the press. Those two events, which occurred Monday, poignantly summarize the challenge facing the White House: getting Moscow's support for the war on terrorism while addressing Mr. Putin's demonstrated penchant for autocratic-style rule.

President Bush has broad, geopolitical motivations for cultivating his increasingly close relationship with Mr. Putin — one which transcends America's counter-terrorist initiative. Mr. Putin's decision to send in a humanitarian mission to Afghanistan, for example, will help the administration's efforts to bring stability to the country. But the White House must also carefully consider how it will broach not only Mr. Putin's assaults on press and judicial independence, but also the Kremlin's genocidal campaign against the Chechen people, which human-rights groups estimate has killed thousands of civilians.

The most recent example of the Kremlin's apparent interference with press freedoms occurred on Monday, when a Moscow court ruled in favor of a suit filed by Lukoil to dissolve Russia's last major independent television station, TV-6, on the grounds that it was financially unsound. Since Lukoil is a minority shareholder of TV-6, its move to sue for the station's dissolution is suspect. Shareholders typically battle creditors to keep a company alive to protect share values rather than request liquidation. It therefore seems that the oil company was doing the Kremlin's bidding, suing for TV-6's closure in return for a tax-related or other favor. Meanwhile, the judge presiding in the case, who ruled in favor of TV-6's liquidation when a reorganization of the company's structure and a rescheduling of its debts seemed more appropriate, was also likely influenced by the Kremlin.

Given the fragility of Russia's fledgling democratic institutions, Mr. Putin's efforts to blight the independence of courts and media outlets will cause Russia fundamental, long-term problems. The White House must address these issues now, as Mr. Putin's appetite for back-door power won't dissipate on its own.

The Bush administration appears to have had some success pushing for a change in the Kremlin's campaign in Chechnya while simultaneously courting its support for U.S. anti-terror efforts. Last week, shortly after Mr. Bush and Mr. Putin met in Texas, the Kremlin initiated negotiations with Chechen rebels. And last Monday, the U.N. high commissioner for refugees' representative in Russia, John McCallin, praised Moscow's humanitarian treatment of the flood of refugees who have fled the war in Chechnya. Mr. Bush surely leaned on Mr. Putin to seek a non-military solution to Russia's conflict with the Chechens. Given Moscow's recent record in Chechnya, it seems unlikely Mr. Putin would have negotiated with the insurgents and treated displaced people from the area humanely without U.S. pressure.

It is therefore crucial that Mr. Bush continue to address significant U.S. concerns with Mr. Putin while continuing cooperation against terror. If U.S. resolve should start to slacken, then the issues overlooked today will become tomorrow's crises.

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