Leading article: The wrong direction

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Fresh from his party's overwhelming victory in Russia's parliamentary elections, Vladimir Putin has decided to engage in a spot of diplomatic vindictiveness. The Russian President yesterday ordered the British Council to close down its two offices outside Moscow. The Kremlin has justified this on the highly implausible grounds that the cultural organisation has been violating Russian tax regulations.

In fact, this appears to be the latest stage of the Kremlin's retaliation to the expulsion of four Russian diplomats from Britain in July. That initial expulsion was itself a response to the refusal of Moscow to extradite Andrei Lugovoy, the man suspected of poisoning a Russian exile in London in November 2006. Four British diplomats have already been expelled from Moscow in response. Mr Putin has evidently decided to step things up.

Yet it would be wrong to frame this move exclusively in terms of a diplomatic dispute between two countries. There is a far more significant context. The manner in which Mr Putin has gone about responding to Britain's entirely reasonable request for the extradition of Mr Lugovoy represents something far more sinister about the direction in which Russia has been travelling under his presidency. This casual use of the law to serve political ends reflects the general reversion of Russian society in the past seven years. We have seen the same process at work in the prosecution of the oil oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky and the harrying of foreign non-governmental organisations operating in Russia.

Nor is there any light on the horizon. Mr Putin's announcement this week that he is backing his close ally Dmitry Medvedev to succeed him is hardly a comforting development for those who want to see a more liberal Russia emerge. Although one might argue that this at least confirms Mr Putin is going to respect the constitutional term limit and step down next March, there are precious few signs that he is actually prepared to hand over the reins of power once he has gone. On the contrary, he has been dropping unsubtle hints that he will become Russia's next prime minister when he ceases to be president. Mr Putin has certainly built a sufficient power base to be able to dominate much of the state apparatus from that office.

Perhaps the most worrying aspect of Mr Putin's supremacy is that many Russians are unconcerned at such a prospect. Indeed, many hope that Mr Putin will remain in control of Russia's destiny beyond next March. If they get their wish, we can expect the country's depressing journey away from democracy, and back to a Soviet-style autocracy, to continue.

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