Bush's Big Silence

By Fred Hiatt
Monday, January 23, 2006

If promoting democracy is President Bush's largest ambition, then Russia is his largest failure.

Not that President Vladimir Putin is the world's most repressive ruler -- far from it. Dictatorships in Burma, North Korea and Zimbabwe are more stifling. So, for that matter, are tyrannies in Russia's neighborhood, such as Belarus, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan.

But no other nation has regressed from openness to authoritarianism during Bush's time in office as dramatically and decisively as Russia -- and with less apparent objection from Bush.

Of course, no U.S. president is responsible for Russia's fate; Russians are. Yet Syrians and Egyptians will determine their own fates, too, and that doesn't stop Bush from wielding U.S. diplomacy and rhetoric to aid pro-democracy forces in their countries. His foreign policy is grounded in the belief that over time the United States can be a force for liberty throughout the world.

So his insouciance with respect to Russia is a mystery. Does it mask a calculation that what happens inside Russia just isn't as important as democratic development in the Middle East, given the U.S. war against radical Islamic terrorists? That it makes sense to keep Putin as a partner while fighting those more pertinent battles?

That would be a miscalculation, for at least three reasons. First, Russia is one front in the war. Its brutal tactics in the southern province of Chechnya are radicalizing Muslim residents there; growing Slavic nationalism risks alienating Muslim minorities in other parts of Russia; and Putin's succor of dictators in neighboring Islamic countries such as Uzbekistan helps create the kind of terror-incubators that Bush said after Sept. 11 could no longer be tolerated.

Second, while an authoritarian Russia may offer tactical cooperation from time to time according to its interests, it cannot be a strategic partner of the America that Bush described in his second inaugural address, because the two countries' values and goals will differ so sharply.

Third, and perhaps most damaging to Bush's strategy, is the negative example Russia provides. In the 1990s, democratization seemed inexorable. Countries were moving toward freedom at different speeds, and some hadn't moved at all -- but with the fall of communism, all eventually would. The ease and speed with which Putin has reversed course saps the sense of momentum and inevitability that could be Bush's biggest ally.

Irina Yasina, director of a pro-democracy foundation in Moscow, said the mood in Russia today resembles what Russians recall as the "stagnation era" under General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev. Yasina, 42, remembers as a 10-year-old being told by her father -- the now well-known liberal economist Yevgeny Yasin -- that he felt buried alive by the communist system.

"But at least then we knew that we were at the end of something," Yasina, a former journalist, said during a visit to Washington last week. "What is most frightening now is that we don't know whether something is ending or is only just beginning."

This month Putin signed legislation that could shutter Yasina's foundation and many other civic organizations. The law creates a Soviet-style bureaucracy to register nongovernmental organizations, leaving the qualifications so vague that the bureaucrats, or the Kremlin, will be free to license or reject as they choose.

Yasina's foundation is a likely target because it was founded, and is still largely endowed, by billionaire oilman Mikhail Khodorkovsky, whom Putin has had confined to a labor camp near the Chinese border because the tycoon dared hint of a political challenge. The camp is a nine-hour plane ride followed by a 15-hour train ride from Moscow, but sometimes when his lawyers arrive they are told they cannot see their client because lawyer visiting hours coincide with forced-labor hours, Yasina said. Khodorkovsky's visit with his wife, promised for month's end, was canceled -- because, he was told, the visiting room is undergoing renovation.

This may seem petty, but pettiness and paranoia are hallmarks of a president who increasingly has isolated himself from anyone but former KGB agents like himself. The broadcast media are Kremlin-controlled, as are parliament, provincial governors, unjailed business tycoons and the judiciary. All of these sectors were free and independent when Putin -- and Bush -- took office.

Now, although they are weak and he is strong, Putin is going after civic organizations, because they are the final outposts of independent activity -- and because he is convinced that the CIA will use such groups to threaten his regime.

This is the man whom Bush will visit in July when Putin hosts a Group of Eight meeting in St. Petersburg. There will be fine photo opportunities in repainted czarist palaces, and the message Putin wants to send his subjects will be clear: I am a czar, and the leaders of the world's democracies do not care; they accept me. The question for Bush is whether he is happy to help Putin send that message.

fredhiatt@washpost.com


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