IS RUSSIA a partner of the United States in the war on terrorism? You wouldn't know it from the bitter campaign Moscow is waging to thwart President Bush's democracy agenda in Muslim Central Asia. Mr. Bush rightly believes that political liberalization in the energy-rich and mostly authoritarian republics that lie north of Iran and Afghanistan is essential to denying al Qaeda and other Islamic extremist movements influence or bases in the region. Yet Moscow insists on portraying U.S. encouragement of free media and free elections as a plot to extend Western influence at Russia's expense. Russian President Vladimir Putin offers a warm embrace to any autocrat who rejects reform.
The most blatant example of this hostile strategy came Nov. 14, when Uzbekistan completed its coverup of a massacre of opposition supporters in the city of Andijan by sentencing 15 men to prison. Uzbek President Islam Karimov's refusal to accept Western criticism of the slaughter or the subsequent show trial led him to break a strategic cooperation agreement with the United States and order U.S. forces out of an air base they had used for operations in Afghanistan since 2001. But Mr. Karimov's handling of Andijan was praised by Mr. Putin, who on the day of the sentencing hosted the Uzbek strongman to sign a new treaty of alliance -- with Moscow instead of Washington.
Uzbekistan thus joined an emerging Moscow-led bloc of dictatorships. Belarus, home of Europe's last strongman, and Turkmenistan, ruled by a despot whose cult of personality rivals that of Kim Jong Il, are charter members; Mr. Putin is also working hard to win over authoritarian Armenia, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan. Through his diplomats and the Russian media, he conducts a mendacious propaganda campaign, arguing that U.S. support for independent civic groups, free media and opposition political parties is a cover for CIA-sponsored coups. He presses Central Asian governments to expel U.S. forces from bases while offering energy and military deals of his own. He publicly applauds fraudulent elections and crackdowns on opposition movements.
Russian influence is one reason that a Bush administration effort to press for free and fair elections this fall in Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan was mostly unsuccessful. Both countries are about to become major oil and gas exporters, and both have leaders who aspire to close relations with the United States. Far from using democracy as a pretext to advance U.S. economic interests and military influence, Mr. Bush risked those interests by pressing Azeri President Ilham Aliyev and Kazakh strongman Nursultan Nazarbayev to allow their opponents to freely challenge them at the polls. Despite some modest concessions by both rulers, the results were meager: International observers declared Monday that Kazakhstan's presidential election, like Azerbaijan's parliamentary election last month, fell far short of democratic standards. Mr. Nazarbayev claimed 91 percent of the vote; preelection and exit polls showed him with support ranging from 60 to 70 percent.
The Bush administration is trying hard to find the bright side of these failed exercises. But it must acknowledge the meager results and follow through on its policy. Having promised "to elevate our countries' relations to a new strategic level" in the event of a free vote, the administration must now deny that status to Kazakhstan. Mr. Putin, however, suffers no such constraint. He was the first foreign leader to congratulate Mr. Nazarbayev on his "reelection," which a Russian observer mission declared democratic. Is this the act of a partner, or an adversary? It's time for Mr. Bush to stop ducking that question.