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Russia's leader ignores U.S. in latest protest crackdown

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Just weeks after the Bush administration criticized the Putin government for its iron-fisted handling of a protest rally in Nizhny Novgorod, riot police beat and detained dozens of anti-Kremlin demonstrators Sunday in St. Petersburg. On Saturday, 9,000 police officers swept down on 2,000 demonstrators in Moscow.
Among the detainees in the Russian capital was former world chess champion Garry Kasparov.
"The excessive use of force that we saw over the weekend is worrying and assaults on the media ... are unacceptable," a spokesman for the government of Germany said at a news conference. "The German government expects and demands a thorough clarification of the events in Moscow and St. Petersburg, particularly the actions which prevented journalists from doing their jobs."
Spokesman Thomas Steg's comments were contained in an ABC News Internet Ventures report.
President Putin's crackdown on critics is not new. Over the past five months, there have been five protest marches and at each, Putin's heavy hand in dealing with his detractors has been evident.
"An open, peaceful, dynamic civil society are cornerstones of democratic society," German Foreign Ministry spokesman Jens Ploetner said in reaction to the crackdown and the arrest of journalists, including a German television reporter. "These themes are, were and remain issues for discussion when we talk with the Russian side."
Close relationship
They should also be issues for discussion between President Bush and President Putin, who has drawn on his close relationship with the White House. Bush's description of the Russian leader as "my good friend Vladimir" has given rise to concern around the world about the United States' willingness to play hardball with the Russians.
In February, after Putin told a security forum in Munich, Germany, that America's "almost unconstrained" use of force is prompting other countries to acquire nuclear weapons to counter such muscle-flexing, Bush's national security spokesman offered this tepid response: "His accusations are wrong."
In March, the State Department reacted to the Nizhny Novgorod demonstration crackdown by saying it "raises serious concerns about Russians' ability to exercise their rights to assembly, free speech and peaceful protest."
It and other comments from the Bush administration stand in stark contrast to the reaction from the Germans. And, they have had such a profound effect on Putin that he didn't think twice about flooding the streets with riot police armed with batons and with orders to deliver a message in blood to other would-be demonstrators.
Add to this campaign of violence the Putin government's decision to ban an estimated 3.3 million foreigners, most from former Soviet states, from operating food stalls in Russia and what you have is a disintegration of democracy and a return to dictatorship.
Over the past several years, Putin has stripped his political rivals of any power, has stepped on the press and has hamstrung the ability of non-governmental organizations to help the people of Russia.
Carefully worded reactions from the Bush administration have not worked.
It's time for some tough talk from the president of the United States.