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Published: Wednesday, 10/6/2004

Putin may do us a favor by tightening the reins in Russia

IT IS no surprise that in the wake of last month's Beslan school attack, President Vladimir V. Putin is pulling in the reins of government in Russia more tightly.

Put another way, he has taken that assault on security - what more poignant than an attack on a school with 338 people, half of them children, killed - as a reason to take steps that serve to some degree to curb liberty. An attack on another country of our immediate knowledge in 2001 led to a similar phenomenon there.

The question for the United States now is whether that development in Russia is from the American point of view positive, negative, or neutral. Further, assuming that the United States could do anything to influence it, if it wanted to, should it?

It is the case that Russia is and has been for any ruler a hard country to govern. It stretches from Eastern Europe to the Pacific Ocean with an area nearly twice that of the United States. Its population of 143 million is not homogenous at all, divided by language, ethnic group, and religion, including Muslims. It is also basically poor; the last description that could be applied to its population is that they are fat, happy, and content - or, easy to rule.

One interpretation of Russian history has been the efforts of Moscow - usually in the form of an individual ruler - to consolidate, maintain, or enlarge some sort of control over the whole amalgam that makes up Russia, or, from 1917 to 1991, the Soviet Union.

That problem is particularly difficult at this point in Russian history. The country is currently made up of some 89 administrative elements with varying degrees of autonomy. A certain number of these political entities have separatist aspirations, prompted by a range or combination of historic, cultural, and economic motivations. All of them witnessed the break-up of the old Soviet Union, when some 14 republics peeled off, out from under Moscow's control.

All of them also perceive the difficulty that Moscow is having in dealing with the Chechen insurgency. That problem is a result of a combination of the Chechens' stubborn, virtually suicidal militancy and the degraded nature of a Russian military starved and demoralized in a post-Soviet era where they no longer have first call on the nation's resources.

Thus, a Chechnya with a population of a million is able not only to hold out against an active Russian military campaign, but its rebels are able to carry the war to Moscow itself in the form of terrorist attacks that Mr. Putin's government can do little to stop or prevent.

Mr. Putin's response has been to use his increasing control of government in Russia to reduce the autonomy and independence of action of the constituent pieces of government. Coupled with his bridling of the big businessmen and a virtual shutdown of media opposition to the actions of his government, Mr. Putin begins to look more and more like a dictator. His KGB background doesn't help.

The basic question now is whether Russia as a tighter ship is better or worse for the United States. The brisk, bright, giddy march to democracy and freedom that looked like it was happening in Russia after Mikhail Gorbachev was replaced by Boris Yeltsin, accompanied by an apparent flowering of free enterprise to accompany it, looked very good at the start. Americans do have an awful tendency to believe their own propaganda.

But what is the answer to the question now? Answering it from the Russian point of view, most of them at this point prefer strong hands on the wheel, a more controlled economy, a greater imposition of order, in particular fewer bombs in Moscow and fewer soldiers committed to and dying in Chechnya, or anywhere else.

To look at the question from the American point of view, even though to say that the Russians are better off with less freedom is heresy in the United States, it is probably the truth that we, too, are better off with Mr. Putin more firmly in control in Russia and with fewer people running around there doing what they like, for monetary or any other reasons.

From the point of view of the United States, the gravest problem in Russia now is the existence of large amounts of nuclear weapons and usable material that could easily serve as the raw material to carry out a limited nuclear attack by terrorists inside the United States. It could come loose either because some Russian or Russians sold it, lost control of it, or simply lost track of it. The amount required is the size of a football.

Once loose, it would be easy to get it into the United States, the technology of assembling such a weapon is not difficult, and it would be easy to set it off almost anywhere in the United States - a mall, a school, a bridge, or a tunnel.

Now, are we better off faced with that problem with Russia under tighter or looser control? The answer seems easy to me.

Recent moves on the part of Mr. Putin's government indicate that he is also capable of using his increased power to take constructive actions in other domains. Russia seems on the verge of ratifying the Kyoto Protocol to the U.N. Framework on Climate Change, thus pushing it over the top into worldwide effect, at least in the 120 countries that accept it, the United States excluded.

Even though it would certainly make better U.S. global pronouncements if Russia were becoming more rather than less democratic, it seems that the United States is at a point where we must face reality and count whatever blessings are inherent in it.

Dan Simpson, a retired diplomat, is a member of the editorial boards of The Blade and Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.



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