Bush's Buddy Vladimir

Editorial

Los Angeles Times

December 22, 2004

It's hard to blame Russian President Vladimir V. Putin for thinking that he can easily get away with pulling Russia back to its autocratic roots. Fresh from orchestrating the forced sale — not to call it a heist — of a subsidiary of Russia's Yukos Oil Co. on Sunday for about half its real worth to a mysterious buyer, Putin was feted by Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder during a two-day visit to Germany that ended Tuesday. The former KGB man's flagrant disregard for the rule of law and property rights was viewed as a minor inconvenience.

Not to be outdone, President Bush chimed in at his news conference Monday that "I told Vladimir that we would work in a new term to see if Russia could be admitted" to the World Trade Organization.

At least Germany, which imports much of its oil and natural gas from Russia, has powerful historical and economic reasons for coddling Putin.

During his Germany visit, Putin extended an invitation to Schroeder to attend 60th-anniversary remembrances of World War II in Moscow. Bush's stance is more perplexing because he is under less compulsion to cater to Putin. He talks about wanting to maintain a "good personal relationship" with Putin, even though it's unclear what he's actually gained from that supposedly good relationship. Decrying American efforts to help ensure a free election in Ukraine, Putin said Washington's influence abroad amounts to a "dictatorship." Putin is softening his line on Ukraine, indicating he would respect an election victory by opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko.

Putin has similarly overreached on the domestic front, but he is less likely to back down. His vendetta against Yukos and its founder, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, is destroying Russia's good name among foreign investors, and that does not bode well for the nation's economic future. At least on Tuesday the White House was making that point and expressing regret over the illegal sale of the Yukos subsidiary. It would be wise for Bush to go a step further by linking Russia's bid to join the WTO to the need for the Kremlin to respect the rule of law. Indeed, this could be a case where the oil lobby's influence in the White House could do some good. During their recent meeting in Chile, Bush alluded to Putin's crackdown, but he could hardly have done otherwise.

Putin has, among other things, cracked down on press freedoms, turned the Russian parliament into a rubber stamp, stripped local governors of power, interfered in Ukraine elections and begun to gut even a semblance of free enterprise. The democracy-monitoring group Freedom House has just placed Russia in the "not free" category.

Secretary of State Colin Powell forthrightly denounced Russia's meddling in Ukraine's election. Putin was unable in that case to play off Europe against the United States. When she replaces Powell, Condoleezza Rice, a Kremlinologist by training, should strive not only to condemn Putin's behavior abroad but to be a forceful advocate of democracy and economic freedoms within Russia.