On Sunday, President Bush visited the Russian Embassy to pay his respects to the victims of last week's terrorist attack at a Russian school and to express his admiration of Russian President Vladimir Putin. "Please pass on my very best wishes to President Vladimir Putin, a man who I admire," Bush told the Russian ambassador.
The next day, Putin announced plans that would significantly bolster his power by ending the popular election of governors and independent lawmakers.
While Bush administration officials, such as Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, quickly raised questions yesterday about whether Putin's action will strangle democracy in Russia, outside experts said the administration's gentle handling of Putin stands in stark contrast to the president's repeated pledges to promote democracy and freedom around the world.
"Russia is one of the leading examples of how the war on terrorism has put the U.S. in a contradictory position in the world," said Thomas Carothers, senior associate and head of the democracy and rule of law project at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "On the one hand, the U.S. is pulling back from democracy with needed security allies who are less than democratic, while simultaneously calling for the U.S. to push for democratic transformations in other parts of the world."
Rhetorically, Bush has made the promotion of democracy, especially in the Middle East, a central theme of his administration. "This young century will be liberty's century," Bush said last month at the Republican National Convention. "By promoting liberty abroad, we will build a safer world."
Last year, in a speech before the National Endowment for Democracy, Bush criticized past administrations for turning a blind eye to autocratic governments in the Middle East. "Sixty years of Western nations excusing and accommodating the lack of freedom in the Middle East did nothing to make us safe -- because in the long run, stability cannot be purchased at the expense of liberty," Bush said.
But, with only tentative and belated exceptions, mostly involving Powell, the Bush administration has remained largely silent as Putin has slowly dismantled democratic institutions, including taking over or closing all independent national television channels, establishing dominance of both houses of parliament, reasserting control over the country's huge energy industry and jailing or driving into exile business tycoons who have defied him.
"Putin could get away with it as the emphasis today is on security and stability, and, therefore, there's more willingness to sacrifice the democracy kinds of goals," said Moises Naim, editor of Foreign Policy magazine. "Putin feels safe in stamping down on democracy because the values of security and stability around the world are now displacing the goals of democracy promotion."
Democratic presidential candidate John F. Kerry accused Bush yesterday of "ignoring America's interest in seeing democracy advance in Russia." But Kerry has not emphasized democracy promotion in his campaign, saying in an interview in May that he would focus first on securing nuclear materials in Russia.
Bush came into office deeply critical of President Bill Clinton's reliance on his relationship with Putin's predecessor, Boris Yeltsin. "With weak and wavering policies toward Russia, the administration has diverted its gaze from corruption at the top of the Russian government, the slaughter of thousands of innocent civilians in Chechnya, and the export of dangerous Russian technologies to Iran and elsewhere," the GOP party platform declared in 2000.
Then, Bush bonded deeply with Putin at their first meeting in June 2001, after the two men discussed a family cross that Putin had had blessed in Israel. That deeply impressed Bush, who told reporters that he had gotten "a sense of his soul." Putin's quick offer of support after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks then cemented the relationship.
A year ago, when Putin visited Camp David, Bush said he respected "President Putin's vision for Russia . . . a country in which democracy and freedom and rule of law thrive." Shortly after Bush made that statement, Putin abruptly jailed Russian oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky and orchestrated parliamentary elections derided by European monitors as unfair.
In January, Powell visited Russia and, in an opinion article for Izvestiya newspaper, warned that "Russia's democratic system seems not yet to have found the essential balance among the executive, legislative and judicial branches of government."
Yesterday, Powell again was signaling the Russians. "In an attempt to go after terrorists, I think one has to strike the proper balance to make sure that you don't move in a direction that takes you away from the democratic reforms or the democratic process that you are committed to," he said.
"I'm pretty troubled by the administration's non-response to a consolidation of authoritarian rule in Russia," said Tom Malinowski, Washington advocacy director for Human Rights Watch. "I understand that they think terrorism is the priority, and that's fine, but the question is whether Russia's approach is making the problem better or worse."