DURING HIS FIRST term as president of Russia, Vladimir Putin used his power, his popularity and his secret police connections to ensure that his political opposition would effectively cease to exist. In four years he managed to weaken the independent media, particularly the broadcast media; chip away at the fairness of the electoral process; and ensure that opposition parties no longer have any sway in the Russian parliament. During his annual state of the nation speech last week, the Russian president hinted that he may aim at a new target in his second term: the "nongovernmental organizations" -- human rights groups, charities and unions -- that constitute the last remnants of the civil society that exploded into existence when Soviet totalitarianism disintegrated at the end of the 1980s. He accused them of ignoring "acute problems in the country" and said that instead they had focused on "getting financing from influential foreign and domestic foundations."
The president's intention is unclear. Some thought he was referring specifically to the charitable foundations that have been founded by some of Russia's wealthy businessmen, including Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the former CEO of the Yukos oil company, who is in jail awaiting trial after a highly political arrest. Others thought the threat could be interpreted by police across the country as encouragement to harass any group that agitates against the status quo, criticizes the government or accepts money from abroad.
Not that law enforcement officials need much encouragement: Complicated legal changes and tax rules long ago made it difficult for nongovernmental organizations in Russia to function. Groups ranging from Memorial, which investigates Soviet history and promotes human rights, to anti-nuclear and environmental advocates have found it increasingly difficult even to obtain the official registration documents they need to open bank accounts and rent office space. Some time ago members of the FSB, the descendants of the KGB, began low-level harassment of many academic and human rights groups that accept Western funding.
Sadly, none of this is likely to contribute much to the "safe, comfortable and stable life" that Mr. Putin said, elsewhere in his speech, he wished to achieve for Russians, nor will it help bring about the economic success he also says he wants. It is all very well for the Russian president to speak of economic liberalism, but the root problems of the Russian economy -- corruption, nepotism and the habits of the former Soviet bureaucracy -- will not be mitigated without greater openness and the raised public awareness that can come only from independent associations.