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While Russia Slept

Elections in Russia usually somehow signal a political crisis: Boris Yeltsin's re-election as President in 1996, for example, seemed to hold off a communist resurrection--not by revolution but through the ballot box. Elections to the State Duma (the lower house of Russia's parliament) are normally quieter affairs, and the just completed campaign and Duma elections ( NOTE TO EDITORS, the vote is December 7 th ) were certainly silent--deadly silent.

Indeed, so omnipotent is President Vladimir Putin in Russia nowadays that the Duma election would have been scarcely noticed--by the world and Russia alike--were it not for the arrest and imprisonment this autumn of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the oil industry oligarch who dared to put his money behind two liberal parties opposed to Putin. Khodorkovsky's arrest did not galvanize ordinary Russians, who increasingly see elections as beside the point in their difficult lives. His arrest did, however, shake international confidence in Putin, as well as arouse Russia's other oligarchs and democratic reformers to seriously fear for their freedoms.

The greater the power, the more dangerous the abuse, said Edmund Burke in 1771. Putin exercises a power greater than that allowed any other democratically elected leader, and the manner in which he exercises it is now causing serious concern. Lord Acton's phrase about the corrupting effect of power does not yet apply; Burke's warning does.

The presidency that Boris Yeltsin created for himself a decade ago--fattened when Yeltsin's tanks shelled an unruly Duma in 1993--gives Putin astonishing freedom from accountability. Unlike America's or Mexico's president, he need not cajole a congress entrenched behind the ramparts of constitutionally separate powers.