CPR for Russian democracy

Editorial

Los Angeles Times

December 6, 2005

WHILE THE BUSH ADMINISTRATION has been busy trying to promote democracy in the Middle East, Vladimir V. Putin has been slowly suffocating Russia's nascent democracy.

Putin's latest assaults on freedom include: legislation that would restrict foreign funding of nongovernmental organizations and impose registration requirements that would keep them under the Kremlin's thumb; a court decision that could bar the right-wing party Rodina, the only realistic opposition challenger, from competing in parliamentary elections; interrogations, arrests and attempts to disbar defense lawyers who dare to represent Kremlin enemies; and sham elections in Chechnya.

Although Russia has been helpful to the United States and Europe in proposing a way out of the Iranian nuclear deadlock, it plans to sell surface-to-air missiles to Tehran. Moscow also rushed in to profit from the Bush administration's principled stand against a bloody crackdown on protesters in Uzbekistan. After the Uzbeks announced they would evict U.S. forces from their bases in retaliation for American pressure over human rights, Russia pledged to step up military cooperation with Uzbekistan.

Unfortunately, the Bush administration has little leverage to persuade Putin to moderate his increasingly authoritarian ways. And any attempt by the United States to mount roadblocks to Russia's accession to the World Trade Organization, as some in Congress favor, would likely backfire.

First, the economic reforms required of Russia for WTO membership would help build a prosperous free market in the country, which is in the U.S. national interest. Second, such an attempt would lead nationalist Russians to conclude, rightly, that the United States was discriminating against Russia while allowing China to join the trade body, fueling Russian paranoia that the West is trying to keep its old nemesis poor and weak.

Still, it's time for the Bush administration to recalibrate its relationship with Russia. First, the U.S. should stop referring to it as a democracy. It isn't. The State Department should suspend legislative exchanges with the rubber-stamp Russian Duma, which is fast losing its claim to be a real parliament.

President Bush should warn that Russia is heading in the wrong direction, and he should put the relationship with Putin on a more businesslike footing. He should cooperate in the many areas where cooperation is still possible but drop the rhetoric about Russia and the United States sharing definitions of freedom and human rights, or common values.

Sadly, it's also time to admit that the West erred in prematurely admitting Boris N. Yeltsin's Russia to the Group of Seven industrialized nations. There is no mechanism for suspending Russian membership in what is now the G-8. On Jan. 1, Russia will take over the presidency of the exclusive club of leading world democracies. And next summer, Putin will host Russia's first G-8 summit in St. Petersburg. Putin is planning splendid celebrations to mark the high point of his second term and to portray Russia as one of the world's leading democratic powers. American diplomats should get busy working with the other G-8 nations to deny Putin that photo op.

Former German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder built a close relationship with Putin independent of the European Union or the transatlantic alliance. The advent of Chancellor Angela Merkel, who has been more cautious about Russia, provides an opening for Germany and the United States to come together in applying pressure on Putin. Though it would be counterproductive to boycott the St. Petersburg summit, it must be turned into an opportunity to express concern over Putin's iron-fisted rule.