Putin's 'Treason Bill' Strikes Fear, Outrage in Russia

The good thing in Russia is that the youth seem to get it — this idea we call freedom. They have had a dose or two of it in their own cities and towns as they grew up, and certainly they have glimpsed it in action in America via television.

The bad thing in Russia is that the dissenting youth are in no way in charge. Indeed the former KGB characters who form the core of the ruling group tolerate little real opposition. The truth is former President and now Prime Minister Vladamir Putin is running the show with just the smallest deference to the Russian Constitution.

A week ago, Putin submitted to Parliament a new “treason bill.” According to Associated Press reports, the proposed legislation “extends the definition of treason from breaching Russia’s external security to damage to the nation’s constitutional order, sovereignty and territorial integrity.”

The proposal has set off alarm bells from almost all dissenting groups within the Russian motherland. They see the bill as being a new tool of the government along the road to make any and all dissent illegal and subject to the harshest penalties. By no small coincidence the timing of the Prime Minister was interesting. He waited until the day before a new opposition party, Solidarity, was opening its headquarters in Moscow.

“It returns Russian justice to the times of 1920-1950s, when independent evaluation of the situation in the country…to say nothing of the criticism of the regime and unsanctioned communications with foreigners, was interpreted as treason to the motherland,” reads a part of a statement released Wednesday by a group of human rights activists, including the head of the Moscow Helsinki Group, Lyudmila Alexeyeva, among others.

Maybe it is just the Russian way. Maybe there are countries who really can’t handle democracy. Maybe once you reach a certain age in a country like Russia, you know there is no sense in losing your life in a fruitless cause. For them the old idea of “better red then dead” holds some sway. Or maybe it is not that at all, but simply the unfortunate attribute of almost all mankind: a desire for wealth and absolute power. Maybe somehow the Prime Minister just knows that he alone knows what’s best for his country.

Whatever the explanation, Mr. Putin has spoken once again for his people.

This time the issue is traitors, meaning as far as one can see from here, anybody, company or institution that disagrees with the Czar or his minions at the court.

Twelve years ago, Russia was a country on its way to democracy with free and open institutions for all the people. Unfortunately, it got de-railed from that goal, basically by a group of KGB agents who didn’t want to lose the cold war, even when it was over, and who now reign under the guise of democracy. But all the while they grasp for more and more power while stifling the rising dissent with a hardening iron fist.

The most encouraging signs the west can see involve youthful dissent. It seems to have changed America and perhaps its force can also change Russia before she reverts completely to the black days of rule by tyranny and oppression.

Ilya Yashdin is a 28-year old spokesman for the youth wing of the Yabloko Party (a liberal opposition party) supports the idea of uniting many of the opposition parties under the Solidarity banner because the issue now appears to be about survival.

His words tell us a lot about the Russian view from outside the usual governmental spin:

"We will never be able to bring down this mechanism of power from the inside," he said. "This power is so complete that it consumes everything. It has wrecked parliament, it has robbed us of our elections, it has destroyed independent television and the justice system. The former KGB people who rule this nation are deaf and blind to criticism from the inside."

In America such a statement aimed at President Bush would bring no instant retaliation, but America is still America while Russia appears to be spinning back to the good old days of Soviet repression. All out-spoken opposition leaders and their followers are at risk. Yet the fear does not seem to faze Mr. Yashdin:

“Freedom isn’t going to be served up on a plate. We have to fight for our freedom and democracy. And when we have clawed our way back we will honor and defend our freedom.”

Patrick Henry could not have said it better. But it will be wise of us here in America to be supportive of the youth culture in Russia because their eyes and ears are still open and their courage is strong. Given the relentless march of the Russian government toward totalitarianism, it will have to be.