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Published: Sunday, 12/12/2004

Soviet-era restrictions return

Mass protests in Ukraine have prevented the Kremlin from installing a puppet government there. There is talk in Moscow that the bug of dissent may spread to Russia "proper" and undo the Kremlin's systematic effort to bring the country back to totalitarianism.

But such expectations are unfounded. If anything, the "orange" revolution in Kiev will have the opposite effect on Russia, with a tightening of the screws to follow.

Controlled by the Kremlin, the upper house of the Russian parliament almost unanimously passed a bill last week that ends the election of governors by popular vote. In the future, they will be appointed by Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Without losing time, on the very same day, Mr. Putin introduced another bill, which has been in the works for a while now. This bill would end individual election of parliament members. If passed, they will be elected by party lists only. Party factions in the Duma are controlled by a pro-Putin bloc.

While the Kremlin is burying parliamentary democracy in Russia, its ideologues and the top brass are dredging up Cold War-era vocabulary, blaming Ukrainian events on "Western political technologies." They are also calling for vigilance to prevent "the agents of influence" and "Western money" from undermining the Putin regime.

Fanned by state media, this hysteria serves as an excuse for Russian secret police and Kremlin-controlled judiciary to try out some of its Soviet-era antics. Courts are starting to reverse acquittals of scientists tried on espionage charges for nothing more than having foreign contacts while secret police are openly creating a net of informers spying on their neighbors.

On top of all, Russian citizens have just lost their freedom to travel. Anyone who travels for more than 50 miles away from his official address for 72 hours or more must now register with the authorities at his new location or face a huge fine. The notorious "propiska" (address registration with police) is back.

Mr. Putin's accomplishments in restoring a police state would make Joseph Stalin proud.

Domestic changes in Russia parallel changes in its relations with the West, particularly with the United States. The Kremlin's discontent with the support of the orange revolution by the European Union and the United States has resulted in rash pronouncements and saber rattling.

Take for example the single sharpest anti-Washington remark a Russian leader has uttered since the Cold War. It came earlier this month when Mr. Putin - rattled by the Western denunciation of the rigged presidential election in Ukraine - lost his cool during his visit to India.

"Even if dictatorship is wrapped up in a beautiful package of pseuo-democratic phraseology, it will not be in a position to solve systemic problems," he said, according to Russia's Itar-Tass news agency.

In what appeared to be a retaliation for the U.S. support of the orange revolution, he said Washington is seeking a "dictatorship of international affairs" and hinted that Russia may not approve of holding elections in Iraq set for Jan. 30.

Consider that these pronouncements came on the heels of his bragging of possessing an unmatched secret weapon that renders U.S. missile defense useless, and you get the picture.

One thing is certain, United States and Russia no longer have the "very different relationship than we did in the Cold War" that National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice was talking about last month. Neither is Russia a democratic state as Mr. Putin would like his Western contacts to believe.

The orange revolution has made this fact undeniable.



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