Leading article: Mr Putin has been given far too easy a ride

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The people of Chechnya voted yesterday for a regional parliament - at least some of them did. The official turnout was just short of 60 per cent; but Western reporters and opposition figures dispute this. The OSCE was not on hand to authenticate the process or otherwise. It had declined to send observers, partly on security grounds; partly, perhaps, so as not to lend credibility to a process that was so thoroughly flawed.

Whatever the real turnout, and whatever the results, the greater dishonesty will have been perpetrated not in this cruelly devastated region, but in the Kremlin. Even before the voting, Moscow presented this election as the last stage in the "normalisation" of political life in Chechnya. Over the past two years, Chechens have voted for a president and in two referendums. Now, with the election of a two-chamber legislature, Chechnya is deemed to have the mechanisms of a functioning democracy in place. If President Putin truly believes this, he is sadly deluded.

There has been no political process worthy of the name in Chechnya for a decade. The elections that have been held have been restricted to candidates, parties and issues that presume Russia's continued suzerainty. The exclusion of all real opposition only ensures that the armed conflict continues. This opposition may be weak and lacking in leadership at present, but the forces that drive it remain. Its exclusion is not in the interests of democracy in Chechnya, but nor is it in the long-term interests of Russia. Forcing opposition underground, allows all sides to distort its strength. Any real talking is postponed.

The US and Britain, it has to be said, have given Mr Putin far too easy a ride over Chechnya. After 11 September 2001, they allowed Russia to shelter from censure over Chechnya by claiming that Russia, like the US, was under threat from international terrorism. Nor did Chechen separatists further their cause with the siege and killing at Beslan, which only supported Russia's case against Chechen terrorism. Thereafter, neither President Bush nor Tony Blair has publicly taken Mr Putin to task over Chechnya.

There are nonetheless home truths about his stated aspiration to make Russia "a normal country" that Western leaders have every right, indeed, a responsibility, to raise with Mr Putin. The unacceptable conduct of Russian troops and the effort to impose a sham democracy in Chechnya head the list. But there are others. The former head of the Yukos oil company, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, may not be the most appealing of characters, but he had the right to fair treatment under the law. He is now in a Siberian prison, after a judicial process that would have raised very loud and public Western protests had it taken place in the Soviet Union.

Ordinary Russians may be free to speak their minds in a way they were not able to even 15 years ago, but under Mr Putin their access to alternative views in the national media has been sharply curtailed. The Kremlin insists that non-state broadcasters must be able to pay their way; but the few that do still feel under pressure to trim their reporting. The dismissal of one of the country's most best-known independent presenters, apparently over a report involving a minister's relative, is only the latest evidence of Russia's media anticipating the descent of the Kremlin's heavy hand.

All this might matter less if Britain could demonstratively distance itself from Russia. But the very opposite is true. Russia will increasingly wield the upper hand, as it stands to become a major provider of our energy needs into the future. We need to speak out in forthright terms about Mr Putin's failings now, rather than wait until even more leverage resides in Moscow.

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