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The failures of Vladimir Putin's Russia

Every so often the arrest of one man involves more than the charges he may face and his fate before the court. In these rare instances, the legal proceedings are a distraction from the larger moral and strategic implications, and so they are intended to be. The arrest of Mikhail Khodorkovsky by Russian secret services in Siberia over the weekend is one such arrest.

The "crimes" of Khodorkovsky are considerable in the eyes of the special prosecutor and the new regime of former KGB officers who now surround President Vladimir Putin. As chairman of Yukos Oil, Khodorkovsky is a successful businessman who built the largest privately held company in Russia from the wreckage of the Soviet energy sector, converted his firm to Western business practices and entered into merger discussions with American corporate giants. This conduct alone might, in today's Russia, be considered a threat to the state, but the real charge behind the arrest contains much more.

This has been a year in which independent media and major independent business owners in Russia have been put out of business by the strong-arm tactics of the special prosecutor and the newly vigilant Federal Security Service, the agency that succeeded the KGB. In a climate that progressive Russian business executives compare to the fearful period of the 1950s, Khodorkovsky made the fatal mistake of expressing political opinions and having the temerity to provide financial support to opposition parties.

While this alone is insurrectionary behavior in the increasingly czarist world of President Putin, Khodorkovsky had the additional misfortune of being the last surviving oligarch. For those who have not kept up with their Russian, "oligarch" is a term of art for "rich Jews" who made their money in the massive privatization of Soviet assets in the early 1990s. It is still not a good thing to be a successful Jew in historically anti-Semitic Russia.

Since Putin was elected president in 2000, every major figure exiled or arrested for financial crimes has been Jewish. In dollar terms, we are witnessing the largest illegal expropriation of Jewish property in Europe since the Nazi seizures during the 1930s.

Unfortunately, the implications of Khodorkovsky's arrest go beyond the suppression of democratic voices and the return of official anti-Semitism. This arrest must be seen in the context of increasingly aggressive, military and extrajudicial actions in Ukraine, Moldova, the South Caucasus and Chechnya. In the past month, Putin has demanded that Ukraine sign a concessionary economic treaty; Russian intelligence services have been detected behind election irregularities in Azerbaijan and Georgia and in influence-peddling in Moldova and Abkhazia; and Russian gunboats have confronted the Ukrainian Coast Guard in an illegal attempt to seize a valuable commercial waterway.

For the balance of his first term, Putin has skillfully taken advantage of America's necessary preoccupations with the war on terrorism and the liberation of Iraq. Now Moscow and the capitals of Eastern Europe are watching carefully to see how Washington responds to this latest crackdown. If the United States fails to take a hard line in response to such a high-visibility arrest, chauvinists in the Russian Ministry of Defense and the FSB will correctly conclude that there will be no meaningful response to the re-establishment of a neo-imperial sphere of influence in the new democracies to Russia's south and west. In addition to the expected Cold War thuggery and opportunistic financial seizures, we should expect that the new powers in Russia will rig the crucial elections in Ukraine and Georgia next year and continue to prop up the brutal dictatorship of Alexander Lukashenko in Belarus.

Finally, the incarceration of one man in Moscow's notorious Matrosskaya Tishina Prison poses painful questions for U.S. policy. It is now impossible to argue that President Bush's good-faith efforts at personal diplomacy with Putin have produced democratic outcomes. Indeed, each of Putin's visits to the Crawford ranch and Camp David has been followed by the cynical curtailment of democratic freedom inside Russia. While it remains unclear what positive qualities Bush detected in Putin's soul during their famous meeting in Slovenia, it is abundantly clear that this is the "soul" of a would-be Peter the Great.

If anyone should pay a price for the pursuit of thuggish policies, it is Putin. It's difficult to see why the U.S. Senate would even consider repealing the Jackson-Vanik Amendment, the 1974 legislation under which Russia still must receive an annual waiver from the United States to maintain normal trade relations. On the contrary, Congress should probably consider additional sanctions. The FSB-led attack on Russian business has already cost American shareholders multiple billions in their savings. These losses will undoubtedly continue until some element of the rule of law returns to Moscow.

The arrest of one man has sent us a signal that our well-intentioned Russian policy has failed. We must now recognize that there has been a massive suppression of human rights and the imposition of a de facto Cold War-type administration in Moscow. It is not too soon to wonder if we are witnessing the formal beginning of a rollback of the democratic gains we have seen in Central and Eastern Europe, in Ukraine and elsewhere since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.

Obviously, there will be some in Washington who will argue that all the oligarchs are probably guilty of some unspecified crime or another. And that we would be wise not to jeopardize our relationship with Putin for the sake of one man or one company. But there are some who are probably still waiting for the facts of the Dreyfus case before jumping to conclusions. The rest of us already know that we have been played for fools.

Bruce Jackson is president of the Project on Transitional Democracies, based in Washington, D.C.

Special to the Washington Post