WHEN SHE LEFT Russia for her Christmas holiday, Irene Stevenson, the AFL-CIO representative in Moscow, had no reason to think anything was amiss. All of her papers were in order, her visa was up to date. When she arrived at Sheremetyevo Airport upon her return, however, she was unexpectedly pulled out of the passport line, refused entry and told to board the next flight out of the country. Ms. Stevenson, who has lived in Moscow since 1989, received no explanation for her expulsion, except for a vague reference to "national security concerns."

If this story were unusual, it would probably be of concern to a few diplomats, and perhaps to the many Russians whom Ms. Stevenson has helped over the years. Unfortunately, her unexpected expulsion is only the most recent, and most egregious, example of recent Russian government mistreatment of foreigners who are explicitly working to promote liberal democratic values in Russia. In late December the Russian government made clear that it will no longer accept Peace Corps volunteers from the United States. This month the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) began pulling its personnel out of Chechnya, also at the request of the Russian government, despite the fact that the OSCE had helped broker a cease-fire in the war-torn republic. These incidents follow several years' worth of low-level harassment of both Russian and foreign independent organizations in Moscow and, in recent months, more direct confrontations. The FSB -- the organization formerly known as the KGB -- has started questioning and following human rights activists in Moscow and the provinces. Occasionally someone gets beaten up. Although this kind of harassment does not represent a return to the Soviet era -- human rights organizations do exist and do still operate legally -- it does signify a distinct change of climate.

It also brings up questions about American commitment to the "democracy promotion" programs that the U.S. government has put in place over the past few years. Ms. Stevenson was not engaged in any activity remotely connected with Russian national security. She was advising Russian workers on how to get the back pay they are owed and helping campaign for better working conditions and wages. She was also organizing people in a society where independent organizations themselves are a novelty -- helping, in other words, to create the kind of civil society that the Bush administration says it wants to spread around the world, not only in Russia but in places such as Iraq. Nevertheless, her expulsion comes just as the administration is contemplating slashing the budget for democracy promotion in Russia, including funding for the kinds of programs Ms. Stevenson runs, on the grounds that the Russians have "graduated" beyond the need for them. Far from graduating, this latest incident is further evidence that Russia is backsliding, that the power of the Russian security services is growing and that the tolerance for opposition is shrinking. Ms. Stevenson's expulsion requires a response at the highest level. Perhaps President Bush should, once again, look into the eyes of his friend President Vladimir Putin and ask him where he is leading his country.