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Fawning Over Putin

By Jim Hoagland

Thursday, February 24, 2000; Page A21

President Clinton acts as if a drop or two of flattery for a fellow politician always greases the wheels of statecraft. But applying soft soap instead of hard truth can be a serious mistake. Russia today is such a case.

Clinton unstintingly praised Boris Yeltsin even as the befuddled Russian leader stumbled to an ignominious resignation on New Year's Eve. Now Clinton tries the same tactic with Yeltsin's successor, Vladimir Putin, using buttery words that may come back to haunt American policy.

"The United States can do business with this man," Clinton said in a Feb. 14 CNN online interview. The president's comments echoed Margaret Thatcher's 1985 description of Mikhail Gorbachev, but went further: Putin is "obviously highly intelligent, he's highly motivated, he has strong views," Clinton added.

Out of context, there is nothing exceptional in one member of the presidents' club welcoming a newcomer with fawning words. Where's the harm?

The harm in Clinton's casual choice of words lies precisely in the fact that they are out of context. They ignore what Putin has done in his short time in office, the means by which he has come to power and the threat to Russian democracy he may still represent.

One person who does see all of this in context is Sergei Kovalyev, a biologist and Duma member who spent a decade in Stalin's gulag and is now a champion of human rights and democracy in Russia. Kovalyev's scathing denunciations of the brutality of both Russian campaigns to subdue Chechnya are far more courageous than anything the Clintonites have said on the subject, even though he risks punishment and they do not.

What are your chances of going back inside, I asked the Moscow-based dissident when he visited Washington the other day. Has Russian democracy entrenched itself deeply enough to prevent the reestablishment of gulags under Putin or the others who seek power by grinding Grozny to dust?

"Democracy is not strong at all in Russia," Kovalyev said through an interpreter at a meeting sponsored by the National Endowment for Democracy. "But the government is weak. It fortunately does not have the power now to make the people go back to those days."

That is the context Clinton misses: A race is underway in Russia between the entrenchment of democratic freedoms and this regime's desire for power. The president's words are heard in Russia as support for Putin's stated ambition to restore the authority of the Russian state. Democracy is losing ground, and Clinton either does not notice or falls silent.

Kovalyev in contrast dismisses Putin as "an ex-KGB colonel who is busy restoring monuments" to Yuri Andropov rather than helping reformers. Putin ordered the return of a bust and plaque honoring the former KGB and Politburo head to a place of honor in Moscow on Dec. 20, nine years after they had been removed.

Kovalyev and others are engaged in a small but symbolically very different effort to memorialize the Soviet past. They want to preserve the Perm-36 prison camp, where Kovalyev and thousands of others were prisoners, as a museum. This will help educate Russian young people about the gulag system that Andropov helped run. In this bit of history, Putin and friends show no interest.

They instead pursue the path to power by destroying Grozny, without any significant condemnation by Clinton or his aides. Clinton wrote in Time magazine in January that Russia was embarked on a campaign "to liberate" the Chechen capital, even as Russian troops were systematically destroying Grozny and its inhabitants.

Again, Clinton ignores context in using the value-charged word "liberate" for what the Russians are doing to Grozny. Not even his loyalist secretary of state, Madeleine K. Albright, would join him on that excursion into puffery.

"Do you consider the invasion of Chechnya as it has been described as a war of liberation?" Sen. Jesse Helms asked Albright in a Feb. 8 Senate hearing. "No," Albright replied without any elaboration. It was the flattest (if indirect) public repudiation of a president's use of language by a secretary of state that I can recall. Administration officials acknowledge that a draft of the Time article cleared by Albright's department did not contain the loaded word, which was written in later.

Remarkably Albright's answer received almost no coverage here. This is perhaps another measure of how much Clinton has devalued the meaning of language at home.

But abroad, an American president's words still carry weight. In Russia that weight is slowing down the democrats who are trying to out-race Vladimir Putin and his uncertain intentions.

© Copyright 2000 The Washington Post Company

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