THE LOW POINT of President Bush's generally successful tour of Europe came at his news conference Thursday with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Fresh from a private discussion in which he said he raised such issues as the rule of law, free press and respect for political opposition, Mr. Bush issued what sounded like an endorsement of Mr. Putin's handling of "a country that is in transformation." Lauding the Russian ruler as a man who means what he says, Mr. Bush declared that "the most important statement . . . was the president's statement when he declared his absolute support for democracy in Russia."
The problem, as Mr. Bush should know, is that nearly the opposite is true. The record shows that Mr. Putin has reversed Russia's progress toward democracy in almost every respect while consistently distorting that record. Thursday was no exception: Mr. Putin grossly misrepresented his abolition of the democratic election of Russia's governors even as he stood next to Mr. Bush. This was followed by the absurd spectacle of the Kremlin's handpicked journalists lecturing the U.S. president about supposed press freedom in Russia while suggesting that the real problem lies in the United States. "You feel like the press is free," Mr. Bush credulously responded. "Well, that's good . . . That's a pretty interesting observation for those of us who don't live in Russia to listen to."
The positive way to regard this gaffe is that Mr. Bush was diplomatically avoiding a public blowup with the notoriously prickly Russian leader after a week in which he had placed Russian democracy firmly on his second-term agenda. In Brussels on Monday, Mr. Bush said that "the United States and all European countries should place democratic reform at the heart of their dialogue with Russia." On Tuesday, Mr. Bush met with the new president of Ukraine, Viktor Yushchenko, who barely survived a poisoning during Mr. Putin's heavy-handed attempt to prevent his democratic election. Shortly before meeting Mr. Putin in Bratislava, Slovakia, Mr. Bush addressed present and former Eastern European freedom fighters and called for the spread of democratic change to Moldova and Belarus, two European states where Russia still seeks to impose its autocratic dominion. Though little is known of their private meeting, Mr. Bush delivered one important message to Mr. Putin in public: that Russia cannot "make progress as a European nation" unless it "renew[s] a commitment to democracy and the rule of law."
The United States has pragmatic interests in cooperating with Russia on issues such as nuclear proliferation and the weapons programs of Iran and North Korea, and so Mr. Bush has good reason to avoid a rupture with a leader who has concentrated most political power in his own hands and is likely to remain in office until at least 2008. Yet it shouldn't be necessary to give Mr. Putin the message that his declarations of commitment to democracy will be accepted at face value even if his practice is the opposite. Better to state the truth, as former Russian prime minister Mikhail Kasyanov did in Moscow the same day: "The direction has changed," he said of Russia's political developments. "It's not the right one. The country is on the wrong track."