PRESIDENT BUSH at last has spoken out publicly against Vladimir Putin's dismantling of democracy in Russia, despite his personal bond with the Russian president and his administration's interest in preserving him as an ally in the war on terrorism. For that we commend Mr. Bush, who has taken a step toward backing up his rhetoric about "defending freedom" around the world. And we have a follow-up suggestion: Mr. Bush should also talk about Belarus and Ukraine, two European neighbors of Russia where popular aspirations for political freedom are colliding with Mr. Putin's neo-Soviet project.
Located between Russia and the new borders of NATO and the European Union, Belarus and Ukraine face a choice this fall between the democracy and free-market capitalism of the West and subordination to a Kremlin-directed economic sphere and Mr. Putin's "managed democracy." Belarus, a country of 10 million, is already nearly gone: President Alexander Lukashenko was years ahead of Mr. Putin in establishing a de facto dictatorship of rigged elections, state-controlled media and persecution of opponents, and next year his country, already dependent on Russian subsidies, is to adopt the ruble as its national currency.
Yet Belarus's democratic opposition has not surrendered, and now it faces a crucial fight: Mr. Lukashenko has added a constitutional referendum to the parliamentary elections he is staging on Oct. 17 that would allow him to remain in power beyond 2006, when his tenure in office -- a decade, so far -- is set to expire. The opposition has no more chance in the parliamentary vote than Russia's opposition had in Mr. Putin's Duma elections last year. But independent polling shows that most Belarusans oppose Mr. Lukashenko's power grab. The Kremlin, naturally, is content to go along with it, because it will ensure that Mr. Lukashenko, a pariah in the West, will continue his surrender of sovereignty to Mr. Putin.
In Ukraine, the stakes are far higher, and the battle is more even. A presidential election scheduled for Oct. 31 will probably narrow in a second round to opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko, who favors the membership of Ukraine in NATO and the European Union, and Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych, who supports closer integration with Russia and is openly backed by Mr. Putin. This might offer Ukrainians a clear choice about the country's future -- except that more than geopolitical alignment is involved. Mr. Yushchenko, who leads all polls, is committed to preserving political freedoms, while Mr. Yanukovych and Ukraine's current president, Leonid Kuchma, are moving toward Mr. Putin's style of politics. State-controlled media are openly campaigning for the official candidate, dirty tricks against the opposition are common, and Western observers believe there is reason to fear that the government, with Mr. Putin's support, will steal the election for Mr. Yanukovych.
Compared with efforts regarding Russia, the resources devoted by the United States to these two countries are pitifully small. A handful of U.S. officials have visited Ukraine and pressed for free elections -- but Mr. Putin has met with Mr. Kuchma 10 times this year alone and recently asserted that relations with Ukraine were "the first priority" of his foreign policy.
Yet the Bush administration can still have an influence. It can promote the formation of a contact group of neighboring countries, such as Sweden, Poland and Slovakia, to support the cause of democracy; it can work with the European Union to press for international election observers, and make it clear that a rigged election will bring a united and firm response. Finally, Mr. Bush can say directly to Ukrainians and Belarusans that he supports real democracy for their countries -- and that in that respect, he differs with Mr. Putin.