Bush shows Putin his hand
Tomorrow's meeting between President Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin in Bratislava could be the most difficult for Mr. Bush in a week that has had its share of challenging moments. Clearly, he wanted to lose no time in raising his democracy and freedom agenda -- and his concerns about the way Russia has been sliding back from those goals -- with the man he has considered his international partner and friend. Slowly, Mr. Bush is setting American policy towards Russia on a different course. It is a correction that is timely, if not overdue.
A former KGB colonel and a proud man who harbors hopes of some day restoring Russian greatness, Mr. Putin is likely to be frosty to Mr. Bush's approach. Reportedly, when Mr. Bush three months ago brought up the subject of Russia's democratic deficit during a private lunch with Mr. Putin, he got such an earful that they never got to any other subject on the agenda.
So, this week, Mr. Bush launched a preemptive strike, in a manner of speaking, and made sure that he would not get filibustered this time. During the major policy address of his European trip, given Monday in Brussels, Mr. Bush reserved his toughest language for Russia. Mr. Bush warned Russia that it "must renew a commitment to democracy and the rule of law."
"We recognize that reform will not happen overnight," Mr. Bush stated. "We must always remind Russia, however, that our alliance stands for a free press, a vital opposition, the sharing of power and the rule of law - and the United States and all European countries should place democratic reform at the heart of their dialogue with Russia."
Russian officials have not been pleased with similar statements coming from Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. At the Munich Security Conference in Germany earlier this month, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov objected to being lectured by American officials. "Democracy is not a potato that you can transplant from one kitchen garden to another," he noted memorably. "I believe that in recent years democracy has been developing normally."
No one would dispute that democracy is an altogether more tender growth than potatoes, but the climate recently fostered by Mr. Putin government would chill even the hardiest root vegetable.
Mr. Putin has successfully concentrated power among a small group pf loyalists primarily from St. Petersburg. During his presidency, elections to the Russian parliament have been restricted, and Russia's powerful regional governors are no longer directly elected. Economic as well as political power has been consolidated. Russia's oil and energy sectors have been under attack by public prosecutors and are again state dominated, and non-Russian energy companies are no longer welcome. The media, particularly the electronic media, have lost any degree of editorial independence. Internationally, Russia has tried to counterbalance the United States, working sometimes with Germany and France, and more recently embracing a strategic partnership with China. Russia's recent assertions that cooperation with Iran on nuclear power will continue have been monumentally unhelpful.
A major set back for the Russian president was the Ukrainian election in December, which will bring Ukraine closer to a Western orbit. Mr. Putin has been acting like a wounded bear as a result. Among the victims of Russia's wounded pride is the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), a multinational organization that certifies election procedures internationally and does valuable service at relatively low cost. The OSCE drew Mr. Putin's anger by discrediting the corrupt first round of the Ukrainian elections, and ussia now is threatening to veto the organization's budget for 2005, and has demanded that the OSCE change its mission.
Mr. Putin is playing a weak hand, given Russia's steep demographic and economic decline, but he is doing so aggressively. Mr. Bush on the other hand has several strong cards to play. Mr. Bush in his speech stated that Russia's future lay "within the family of Europe and the trans-Atlantic community." It's a powerful promise that should come with conditions.
There will be stations along this road, should Russia chose to take it. Reversing Russia's trend away from democracy and from state monopolies is essential and so is opening up Russia's economy to foreign investment, on which hinges Russia's membership of the WTO. So would be progress on solving the Chechnya crisis, and Iran's nuclear power program.
Mr. Bush will undoubtedly find in his meeting with Mr. Putin that promoting a freedom agenda can be tough sledding. All honor to him, though, for giving it a good try.
Helle Dale is director of the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies of the Heritage Foundation.
First appeared in The Washington Times