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Putin cracks down Russian president's use of power stifles dissent in dictatorial ways

Russia, when it was the Soviet Union, suffered for decades from way too much government. Power -- political and economic -- was held by a few people who sought, with an alarming degree of success, to control everything.

The Soviet Union, when it became Russia, floundered briefly with far too little government. Power, mostly economic, left the hands of the Kremlin but, rather than being distributed throughout the countryside in a Jeffersonian image of yeoman farmers and entrepreneurial tradesmen, it was quickly gobbled up by a few overly powerful empire builders who became known as the oligarchs.

The quick flow of control of communications, manufacturing and energy from the state to the hands of overnight billionaires answerable to no one was enough to make a lot of Russians long for the good old days. And that is, sadly, just what President Vladimir Putin has given them.

It is difficult, from this distance, to know what is a more ominous sign: the fact that pro-democracy demonstrations over the last several days in Moscow and St. Petersburg managed to attract only a few hundred people, or the fact that the demonstrators were far outnumbered by soldiers and police who proceeded to beat and arrest the marchers for no reason other than that they could.

Certainly, the loose confederation of opposition groups that gather under the umbrella of The Other Russia are hardly a threat to Putin's rule, especially if, as he repeatedly promises, he steps down next year at the end of his second term. Putin was elected twice and maintains consistently high approval ratings, built partly on his success in busting, exiling, imprisoning or co-opting the oligarchs. The danger of the country sliding into anarchy, always the trump card of dictators everywhere, seems slim indeed.

But, of course, most of the Russian media are controlled either by the state or by Putin's friends. A lot more Russians might be sympathetic to The Other Russia if they had ever been allowed to hear about it and to judge for themselves whether its grievances were valid.

The Bush administration was among those rushing Monday to condemn the Russian government's abuse of power and intimidation of the press. If Putin noticed, it didn't stop him from ordering the merger of two of the nation's leading pipeline operations, helping consolidate the new source of Russian power -- energy, a much more reliable power base than the old Red Army ever was.

Putin's decision to crack down so harshly on what little dissent there is in Russia, and his expectation that he will get away with it, are troubling in the extreme. But they serve as a useful reminder that, while some nations remain eager to export democracy, others seek order. And those who seek only power can claim to be providing either, as suits their needs.

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