Putin Steps Up Crackdown on Opposition Press

In Putin’s Russia, women stand at the vanguard of the fight for freedom and democracy, at least where the news media is concerned. So now that he has liquidated journalist Anna Politkovskaya and erased Natalia Estemirova, two new names are at the top of Vladimir Putin’s hit list: Yevgenia Albats and Yulia Latynina.

Of the two, Albats is likely the more despised by the regime. Currently the publisher of a magazine called New Times, Albats was Politkovskaya's classmate at Moscow State University (Russia’s version of Harvard) and received a Golden Pen Award (the USSR’s version of the Pulitzer Prize) for her reporting on conditions in Russian maternity wards. She was a Nieman journalism fellow at Harvard in 1993, and shortly thereafter published a bombshell book about the KGB and its efforts to infiltrate the Russian government. Later she matriculated at Harvard, and in 2004 received a PhD in political science.

In addition to consulting for American universities and writing for American papers, Albats hosts a talk show on Echo of Moscow Radio, one of the very last bastions of independent journalism in Russia. Along with Novaya Gazeta, her magazine stands virtually alone in print media in criticizing the excesses of the Putin regime.

Given the fact that Putin is a proud alumni of the KGB who has worked hard to fill all levels of Kremlin bureaucracy with his KGB cohorts, Albats is of course a particularly large dot on his radar screen.

In February, the New Times published a story about how Putin’s Praetorian Guard, known as OMON, were using migrant slave labor to support themselves (Russia’s so-called “law enforcement” officers are paid notoriously low wages). The article also revealed details about how OMON is used as a political tool by the Kremlin to crush dissent and intimidate opposition political leaders.

The Kremlin’s response was to attempt to raid the magazine’s offices and seize its records, but Albats boldly beat back this attempt.

Putin, of course, did not give up, and last week he struck again. On September 2, an army of masked Putin goons, including many special forces officers, raided the paper’s offices and demanded the source recordings of interviews for the story about OMON. It’s as if Barack Obama had sent the FBI, including a SWAT team, to collect taped interviews of White House informants over at Fox News.

Once again, Albats told Putin’s stormtroopers to drop dead. How long it will be before -- as with Politkovskaya and Estemirova -- Putin returns the favor is anyone’s guess.

Reporters without Borders (RWB) has condemned the Kremlin’s effort to uncover the New Times sources. RWB notes that efforts to forcibly uncover the names of news sources is becoming routine in Putin’s Russia, and states: “Russia is ranked 153rd out of 175 countries in the 2009 Reporters Without Borders press freedom index.” In other words, 85% of world nations have more press freedom than Vladimir Putin’s Russia.

Putin is not satisfied, of course, to ruthlessly suppress just mainstream media; he’s declared war on the blogosphere as well. Russia’s most-read blogger, Rustem Adagamov (who blogs on Live Journal as “Drugoi” or “The Other”), accuses the Kremlin of “unparalleled police brutality” as it escalates its attacks on opposition political demonstrations. He proclaims: “The Internet is the last free territory -- but it won't stay that way for long.”

Last week, there was a horrifying example of just what Adagamov meant: one of Putin’s ranking goons felt confident enough to openly brag that his forces were intercepting and reading e-mail correspondence sent by opposition political leaders, and using the contents to affect preemptive arrests and shut down demonstrations.

That was nothing, however, compared to what Putin himself had to say. Putin openly stated his forces would crack the skulls of any opposition party activists who dared to assemble in public without official police permission, and once again he ordered the arrest of former First Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov, who was taken into custody for doing nothing more than distributing his scholarly criticism of the Putin government’s performance at the outskirts of a rally.

The response of the Obama administration to all this neo-Soviet horror has been truly nauseating and unsettling.

A press release from the Clinton State Department says that Obama’s people are having a “conversation” about its “concerns” relating to the repeated violations of the Russian constitution, which contains the same right-of-assembly provisions as its U.S. counterpart. No mention of Putin’s remark, no mention of Nemtsov’s name, no direct support for the activists who are risking their lives to defend the American values set forth in the Russian constitution.

I would say we have a coward for a president, but to say so would imply that Mr. Obama believes in American values enough to stand up for them. Increasingly, that seems difficult to believe. Obama is not just silent on Russia, he’s been actively helping to legitimize the Putin regime, most recently by munching cheeseburgers with Putin’s figurehead president Dmitry Medvedev.

It’s heartening, however, to see that -- at long last -- the Republican Party has awoken from its stupor. Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, stated bluntly:

Putin’s overt and public threat to beat democracy protestors has taken Russia’s ongoing assault against human rights and democratic rights to a whole new, disturbing level [and Russia] must be held accountable for its crackdown on all forms of dissent -- including the murders of journalists. Responsible nations cannot overlook Russia’s downward spiral towards tyranny and oppression, and must deny Russia membership in the World Trade Organization and all of the other perks which it does not deserve.

Hopefully, the GOP has now realized that standing up for American values is not just the right thing to do, it’s good politics. Americans want their nation to stand behind its creed, and they know that their best future lies in a world of freedom and open competition in which their efforts can be fully recognized and rewarded. If Barack Obama doesn’t share that view, it’s time to teach him the error of his ways.