Washington, 16 February 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Acting Russian President Vladimir Putin's assertion Tuesday that he has asked Russia's security services to ensure the safety of missing RFE/RL correspondent Andrei Babitsky could constitute a breakthrough or be nothing more than another instance of obfuscation and delay. If Putin's statement leads to Babitsky's safe return to Moscow, Putin is certain to get enormous credit both at home and abroad. And he is likely to do so despite his own government's role in arresting Babitsky in the first place and then handing him over to people his regime calls "criminals" and "bandits" in exchange for Russian prisoners of war.
But if Putin's words do not lead to that result, and his own comments raise that possibility, then they will only call greater Russian and international attention to the many contradictory statements other Russian officials have issued during the past month concerning their treatment of Babitsky.
Speaking to journalists in Moscow on Tuesday, Putin said he is in constant contact with officials in the Russian security services and the office of the Prosecutor-General concerning Babitsky's fate and that they are doing "all they can" to ensure that Babitsky remains alive and is set free.
But Putin then added something which casts doubt on everything else he said, noting that "as far as I understand the situation, [Babitsky] already feels free."
Such a statement at the highest level is welcome news to Babitsky's family, friends, and colleagues whose overriding interest is in his safe return.
It is also likely to be welcomed by Western governments interested in justifying their close contacts with the Putin government and to those concerned about what Russian treatment of Babitsky may imply about the future of democracy there.
Putin's remarks cannot expunge the events of the past month, a month without news from Babitsky, a Russian citizen and a war correspondent distinguished by his accurate and even-handed reporting. Nor can the acting Russian president's words end concern about his commitment to democracy and freedom of the press.
The record of the last month is simply too stark.
On January 16, Russian officials detained Babitsky, and then on January 27 they formally arrested him. For more than a week, they denied that they had any information about his whereabouts, acknowledging his detention only after Russian and international media began asking questions.
Russian officials in both Chechnya and Moscow kept changing their story as to why he was under arrest. Some suggested that he was involved with "illegal armed formations." Others said that he had failed to secure the necessary press credentials.
Throughout this period, Babitsky was not allowed to contact his wife or his lawyer, a clear violation of Russian law.
Then on February 3, Russian officials produced a film clip which purported to show Babitsky being handed over to Chechen fighters, an action that clearly violates provisions of the Geneva Convention.
Some Russian officials said that Babitsky had volunteered to be exchanged. Others -- including Interior Minister Vladimir Rushailo -- claimed the exchange was entirely legal and proper. And still others asserted that with this exchange, Moscow no longer had any responsibility for Babitsky, though the government claims he is alive but that they do not know where he is. Indeed, Putin's statement is simply the latest in a long line of similar Russian claims.
But such assertions are mutually inconsistent. If Putin and other Russian officials in fact know that Babitsky is alive, then they must know who is holding him and where he is. If they do not know that, then they cannot possibly know what condition he is in; and their assertions to the contrary must be treated with skepticism.
This record is troubling enough, but even if Putin's statement does lead to Babitsky's return, his statement is nonetheless worrisome for three reasons:
First, Putin's intervention implies that Russian democracy continues to depend on the will of one man rather than on institutions like constitutions and laws, a less than ideal foundation for democracy.
Second, Putin's words sound more like damage control than like the actions of someone whose oath requires him to defend the Russian Constitution at all times. His remarks came only after Russian and Western media demanded that he do something.
And third, Putin's words suggest something disturbing about his approach to such matters. They appear to indicate that he believes he can always talk his way out of bad past actions and that such an approach will work both with Russians and with his foreign interlocutors.
If Putin is able to produce Babitsky soon, some may indeed forget these lessons of the last month. But that month without news is certain to continue to matter for the cause of human freedom and the future of Russia.