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Election Sets Russia Back

Don’t believe President Vladimir V. Putin’s claim that Russia’s parliamentary elections brought democracy closer. The balloting Sunday represented a lamentable step back toward authoritarian rule.

Putin’s allies in the State Duma, led by the United Russia party, appear set to gain a two-thirds majority. Putin will almost certainly win election to a second four-year term in March, given the absence of meaningful opposition. More ominously, he might have the support to change the constitution and run for a third term if he so wishes. It is an alluring prospect that he should resist.

The defeat of the Communists, the main opposition party, is little cause for tears except that it dims an alternative voice. The trouncing of two political parties supportive of democracy and a free-market economy is greater cause for worry.

Putin has given his rule the trappings of democracy by allowing opposition parties to criticize his government and by not interfering directly with elections. But the government’s seizure of private television networks meant United Russia’s message was heard above all others. Putin forced oligarch and former supporter Boris A. Berezovsky to give up his television networks and go into exile. In October, Putin had oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky arrested, supposedly in an anti-corruption campaign. Khodorkovsky’s real offense was supporting anti-Putin political parties and hinting he might run against the president.

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A European campaign monitor said the use of state media to promote favored parties led to “overwhelmingly distorted” results and represented “regression” from democracy. The White House said it shared Europe’s concerns about the use of government resources and manipulation of the media in the campaign.

The decade since the collapse of the Soviet Union has brought economic upheavals to Russia and a yearning by many voters for stability, which they see in Putin. The president launched a revival four years ago of the war on separatists in Chechnya, a popular move; he and United Russia also probably benefited from voter anger at the suicide bombing of a train near Chechnya that killed more than 40 people on the eve of elections.

Putin still has a choice between the anti-democratic path on which he has set foot and support for political and economic liberalization. If Putin wants a legacy, not just personal power, he must curb his former colleagues in the KGB and other security services who use their many government posts to intimidate businesspeople and civic leaders into supporting the government. He also should spurn calls to break Russia’s two-term presidential limit.

The Bush administration has warm relations with Putin and can afford to warn him away from the power-obsessed path of Russian and Soviet leaders from the czars through Stalin and Brezhnev. Putin continues to claim an attachment to democracy. He must act in concert with his words.

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