The Kremlin stonewalls; Vladimir Putin: Russia's likely next president scorns openness by not answering ticklish questions.


AS credible challengers drop out one by one, Vladimir Putin seems destined for a coronation in Russia's March 26 presidential election.

This is tragic. It robs Russia of a badly needed chance to strengthen democracy through vigorous debate and an open exchange of ideas. Instead, Russians will go to the polls to ratify a predestined winner -- just as in Soviet times.

In his six weeks as acting president, Mr. Putin has shown himself to be a superior manipulator. He has usettled his political rivals by raiding their staffs.

He stole his chief Chechnya spokesman from Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov. As the new head of the government's television and radio operation, Mr. Putin tapped one of the founders of the independent NTV channel.

As a result, Mr. Putin has a well-oiled propaganda machine that stonewalls any attempt to examine his ideas or the challenges ahead for the country.

The Chechnya war is a case in point. Despite a worldwide outcry against the tactics used by Russian troops to annihilate the insurgents as well as civilians, Mr. Putin has refused to discuss the concerns. Instead, he has given free rein to the military, which now has claimed victory with its capture of Grozny.

If a lasting peace is to come to Chechnya, a political settlement is needed. So far, Mr. Putin has given no indication that is on his agenda. Nor does he seem to comprehend the world's horror at the war's toll on civilians, Chechans as well as their ethnic Russian neighbors.

Acting President Putin also claims he knows nothing about the fate of Andrei Babitsky, a correspondent of the U.S.-operated Radio Liberty who was first mysteriously detained by Russian troops and then videotaped being handed over to hooded irregulars in what was described as a POW exchange.

The swap -- if that's what is was -- came even as Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright was in Moscow, expressing concern for Mr. Babitsky, a Russian citizen with rights to residency both in Moscow and Grozny, who had not been granted legal counsel during his two-week detention.

Mr. Putin's arrogance plays well among many Russians who regard insolence -- particularly toward foreigners -- as a desirable leadership quality.

Such an attitude by the Kremlin leader, however, may infect the whole government with scorn toward dissent and demands for accountability.

If that happens, Russia's nascent democracy is in danger.

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