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Published: Sunday, 12/4/2005

Russians need a romance with civility

Fast heartbeat, stomach butterflies, and feeling euphoric when falling in love are all caused by high levels of a molecule known as nerve growth factor (NGF), news agencies reported last week.

But here's the rub: After one year with the same lover, the love molecule levels drop back to normal, they said.

Love molecules are to the human body what civil society is to Russia. Only life expectancy of the latter is somewhat longer - 12 years.

The first time Russia gave civil society a try was at the beginning of the 20th century, when a 12-year exeperiment in liberal revolution was killed by the 1917 Bolshevik coup.

The second Russian experiment with democracy started in 1993, the day after Boris Yeltsin used tank fire to smoke hard-line Communists out of the parliament building they occupied.

It ended last month when parliament passed a draft bill that tightens state control over nongovernmental organizations, effectively banning any foreign aid to them.

There is no doubt that parliament - reduced by the Kremlin to rubber-stamp governance - will make it law. For Russian civil society, this is a death sentence.

Over the past couple of years, NGOs have been the only major source of reliable information about Russia and the only major source of political opposition to the Kremlin. Political parties, lawmakers, the media, and politically-minded financial tycoons have been largely coopted by the regime through intimidation, blackmail, and unlawful prosecution.

The Kremlin party line is that the bill aims to end money laundering through NGOs and thereby reduce extremism and terrorism.

This argument does not hold.

First, there are no proven cases to support the claim that extremists are laundering money through NGOs.

Second, money laundering is a way of life for Russian bureaucrats. Russian officials will have accepted $316 billion in bribes this year - about half of the country's GDP - according to the Indem Foundation, a Russian think tank.

It is corruption of officials that allows terrorism to grow in Russia. It is corrupt officials who gave large groups of armed terrorists access to such public places as hospitals, schools, theaters, and police stations.

But instead of finding a way to rein in bureaucrats, the parliament undermines the last vestige of civil society.

The assault on nongovernmental organizations began a year ago when the Kremlin decided to blame regime changes in Ukraine and Georgia on U.S. and European support of NGOs there.

It picked up momentum last spring when Nikolai Patrushev, President Vladimir Putin's personal friend who heads Russia's security service, gave a fiery speech in the parliament. Using Cold War vocabulary, he accused NGOs of plotting against Russia and serving as fronts for foreign intelligence.

Then, in the summer, President Putin claimed that foreign-funded NGOs engage in political activities and said he would not allow it. A major crackdown on NGOs has been brewing ever since.

The timing of the bill is, however, symbolic, because it comes on the heels of a decision by Congress to allocate $4 million for the development of political parties in Russia.

President Bush looked deep into "friend Vladimir's" eyes at his Texas ranch a few years ago and detected something that made Mr. Bush believe he could trust him.

It could well be a high love molecule level.

But there's no need for another U.S.-Russian summit to figure out if it's still there.

It is not.



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