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The BBC's Robert Parsons in Moscow
"Children will have to complete 100 hours of military training"
 real 28k

Thursday, 9 March, 2000, 16:41 GMT
Analysis: Echoes of Stalinism?
Some fear Russian society is being militarised
By Russian Affairs Analyst, Stephen Dalziel

In a recent letter in the English-language daily, The Moscow Times, a group of leading Russian intellectuals accused acting President Vladimir Putin of creating "a new Stalinism".

They accused him of being authoritarian, and of enhancing the position of the military in society.

Stalin: Putin's role model?
No one doubts that Vladimir Putin wants to give the impression of being a tough leader. The uncompromising military campaign in Chechnya, which he started as prime minister, has done much to show the Russian people that he is "an iron fist".

The tsars were autocratic rulers, who, until the later years of the 19th century, allowed no opposition.

Vladimir Ilich Lenin, who led the Revolution of November 1917, saw the relaxation of authoritarianism as one of the reasons why he was able to overturn society. So a strong leader was once again essential in Russia.

And from Leninism, Stalinism was a natural successor. The Soviet Union survived until the point where the leader - President Mikhail Gorbachev - again showed more liberal tendencies, perceived as weakness by those who favoured authoritarianism.

'Alarm bells'

After the often erratic behaviour and ill-health of President Boris Yeltsin, Mr Putin seems determined to show he is the kind of tough leader who can keep a hold on a country as vast and diverse as Russia. But this has rung alarm bells among the liberal intelligentsia.

But other liberals are more relaxed about Mr Putin's style, and believe that, even if he wanted to turn the clock back, it is too late.

A group of liberals, including Yelena Bonner, the human rights' activist, and widow of Andrei Sakharov, the man dubbed, "the conscience of the nation", recently published an article in The Moscow Times. They accused Mr Putin of introducing, "a new stage of modernised Stalinism", saying that, "authoritarianism is growing harsher", and that "society is being militarised".

The group was highly critical of the behaviour of the media, and said there was a "vicious" assault on the freedom of the press.

In particular, they cited the experience of the Radio Liberty journalist Andrei Babitsky, who has recently returned to Moscow following his arrest and detention in Chechnya.

'Genie' released

But other liberals are more relaxed about Mr Putin's style, and believe that, even if he wanted to turn the clock back, it is too late. Irina Khakamada, one of the leaders of the Union of Right-Wing Forces, a party dedicated to liberal economic reform, says freedom is like a genie: once it has been released from the bottle, there is no putting it back in. She says Russia has already experienced 10 years of the free development of political parties, a free media, and freedom of information.

This is a view shared by one of Russia's leading political satirists, Viktor Shenderovich. He says a generation has grown up which is not used to censorship.

Many people believe, not only that Putin will win, but that he will be at the top for some time

Mr Shenderovich has already experienced criticism of his work from some of those close to Mr Putin. Three of the acting President's former lecturers at St Petersburg University law school attacked the television programme Kukly (Puppets), for its "irreverent" portrayal of Mr Putin.

Mr Shenderovich is one of the main authors of the programme, which uses grotesque latex puppets to parody Russia's politicians.

But he believes that any attempt to take the programme to court would simply be foolish, and would fail in the same way as a similar attempt by the Yeltsin administration failed in 1995. But, he says, it would have one positive effect: it would increase the programme's audience share.

There seems to be little disagreement among the liberals - as, indeed, among many Russians - that Mr Putin is by far the favourite in the presidential race. This has sharpened the debate as to what sort of president he will be.

Many people believe, not only that he will win, but that he will be at the top for some time, especially if the constitution is revised, and the presidential term becomes seven years instead of the present four.

If this view is correct, there may be plenty of time for Mr Putin to show whether he really is introducing a new brand of Stalinism; or whether his rule will see Russia achieve genuine economic and political liberal reform.

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