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A couple of weeks ago the former KGB apparatchik who is now president of Russia, Vladimir Putin – apparently as a step toward what he contradictorily called a "dictatorship of law" – took aim at another Valdimir: the owner of the only meaningful independent television operation in that country, Vladimir Gusinsky. That was an attack on speech/press freedom, and it may yet succeed.

This week, Putin is aiming at yet another Vladimir and many others like him. Putin’s new attack is on freedom of association.

Since control by the communist party crumbled a decade ago, Russia’s chaotic political system has given birth to nearly 200 parties, some of which look like real parties in western political terms (e.g., the communists, the pro-Putin Unity Party), while others are little more than small cliques surrounding individual politicians or would-be reformers.

One small party, a political reform group called the Republican Party, was organized by a Russian school teacher named Vladimir Lysenko. Several years ago, small groups like Mr. Lysenko’s Republican Party had more impact than today. For example, in 1995, forty-three of them competed in elections for Russia’s parliament. Two years ago, slightly more than half (twenty-eight) competed. Further attrition of the small political parties is reflected in the fact that in 1995 half of the votes in the parliamentary election were cast for the small parties not represented there, while in 1999 only nineteen percent were. Thus, the small party trend in Russia may well be vanishing, as voters and politicians begin to coalesce around major leaders and large issues. Then, groups like Vladimir Lysenko’s Republican Party may be eliminated naturally, by westernization of the political process. 

But President "dictatorship by law" Putin is apparently too impatient to wait for a free political process to eliminate the kinks in Russia's party system. Like his attacks on free speech/press, he now intends to attack and destroy the small political parties. Putin has proposed a law containing at least two provisions that would spell the end of the small parties. They would have to compete in certain elections regularly, or be shut down. They would have to have more than one hundred members in at least forty-six of the country's regions.

While there has been vociferous opposition to Putin’s latest authoritarian move, especially from the small parties, and while that opposition has properly been rooted in the understanding that Putin continues to consolidate his power, there is an even more principled reason to object – one uniquely American – and that is freedom of association.

The Constitution of the United States of America does not contain any express right of "association." Yet, in the case of NAACP v. Alabama in 1958 the Supreme Court of the United States held that "[e]ffective advocacy of both public and private points of view, particularly controversial ones, is undeniably enhanced by group association . . . . * * * Of course, it is immaterial whether the beliefs sought to be advanced by association pertain to political, economic, religious or cultural matters, and state action which may have the effect of curtailing the freedom to associate is subject to the closest scrutiny." In accordance with this right, Americans have the right to associate in political parties, and government – state and federal – control over those parties is virtually nil. If the associational rights of political party members are substantially affected by state law, the members’ right will trump that law unless it is proved to serve an extremely important state interest that can not be served in some less restrictive manner – an extremely difficult burden for the state to meet.

Were associational rights generally recognized in Russia, and in particular for those persons wishing to associate for political purposes, Putin’s scheme would probably get nowhere. But, alas, that is not the case.

Russia's leaders may have learned something from the United States about how indispensable political parties are to the democratic process, but until they, and Mr. Putin especially, understand that the right of political parties to exist is rooted in the more fundamental right to freely associate for common goals, they will not know why.