Putin Critic Faces Legal Troubles in Russia

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The case of Russian author and analyst Andrei Piontkovsky underscores concerns over a rollback from democracy in Russia. Currently in Washington, Piontkovsky faces legal troubles in Russia over books he has written and says a law banning extremism is being used to silence dissent.

LIANE HANSEN, host:

While the two world leaders continued to define their version of democracy, there's a development in Russia that may silence what most Americans consider free speech. As NPR's Michele Kelemen reports, it involves a Russian scholar on a fellowship here in Washington.

MICHELE KELEMEN: Andrei Piontkovsky sits at a round conference table holding up two of his books. One is called "Another Look into Putin's Soul," with an ominous looking picture of the Kremlin leader on the cover.

Mr. ANDREI PIONTKOVSKY (Fellow, Hudson Institute; Author, "Another Look into Putin's Soul"): These two - maybe two - first two books forbidden in post-communist Russia. So this is historically storied books.

KELEMEN: He was briefing U.S. government officials and some of his friends in the Washington think tank world about his next steps in a case that could be a test for a Russian law that bans extremism. He says the law is being used to silence dissent. At the end of May, prosecutors in the southern Russian city of Krasnodar sought to question him about his writings. Piontkovsky couldn't go because he's been working here at the Hudson Institute but he does plan to return to Russia soon for a conference.

Mr. PIONTKOVSKY: I deliberately go to demonstrate that I'm not scared to declare publicly that that this accusation is just preposterous and defy authority.

KELEMEN: The lunch meeting was a sort of odd farewell party for him with his American colleagues wondering if he will be returning to D.C. as planned or end up in some Russian jail. Piontkovsky is a mathematician by training and he says he's carefully calculated the risks. He says he has no plans to be a martyr for the cause of democracy and thinks there's only a 10 to 15 percent chance he'll be arrested.

Mr. PIONTKOVSKY: I think that during my 10 days back in Moscow, they will not bother me, because it would be enormous embarrassment for the regime, because it's a case of medieval inquisition, you know?

KELEMEN: Some of the articles the Russians are investigating are four years old, he says. Piontkovsky says he's pleased to see some Russians speaking out against this. The communists, nationalists and members of his party, Yabloko, have all rallied to his support. He argues that Russians need to challenge the Kremlin or else Putin's government will just keep pressing ahead with what Piontkovsky describes as a gradual, incremental assault on civil society.

Mr. PIONTKOVSKY: Because I really believe that if some line of defense - some red(ph) line, which may be defended in Russia that people can't be arrested for what their right(ph).

KELEMEN: He's counting on support from his colleagues here if he does land in jail. But asked whether the U.S. government should speak out, Piontkovsky says, he's not so sure it will help. He blasted the U.S. officials seating across the table from him, saying he still can't understand why President Bush invited Putin to Kennebunkport just days after Putin compared the U.S. to the Third Reich.

Mr. PIONTKOVSKY: He compared your president to Adolf Hitler. And in several days, he got invitation for Bush family house. And you think that after this - were he the concern - this Western reaction for prosecution of Piontkovsky. Never, you (unintelligible) him to get away with everything.

KELEMEN: Administration officials weren't there to be quoted, and were only in listening mode. Piontkovsky said the U.S. has little influence with Putin.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

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