The Magazine

Putin's Authoritarian Soul

From the February 28, 2005 issue: The first test for Bush's liberty doctrine.

Feb 28, 2005, Vol. 10, No. 22 • By JAMES M. GOLDGEIER and MICHAEL MCFAUL
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IN HIS SECOND INAUGURAL ADDRESS, George W. Bush made a full-throated, unabashed pledge to promote liberty throughout the world. Bush had barely stepped down from the podium, however, when "senior administration officials" began to caution that the president's speech did not signal a change in policy. Television talking heads and newspaper columnists joined the chorus of dismissal, arguing that words don't matter. The president, evidently, was simply performing an empty ceremony when he called for the spread of freedom.

Words by themselves, it is true, are never enough. To make his commitment credible, Bush must now execute a strategy for achieving his noble end. Yet words do matter, especially when spoken by the president of the United States. When chosen carefully and reiterated consistently, a president's words can be part of a strategy for promoting freedom. Autocrats around the world listen and get nervous. Democrats around the world listen and get inspired.

Words are especially meaningful when they are hard to say. The first big test of Bush's commitment to his liberty doctrine will come when he meets Russian president Vladimir Putin in Bratislava, Slovakia, on February 24. Calling for freedom's advance on Inauguration Day is one thing; saying the same to Putin a month later is another, and a much more difficult, thing.

In previous meetings, Putin and Bush seem not to have spent much time discussing liberty. Before the recent inauguration, this omission had a strategic justification, however flawed. Throughout Bush's first term, "realists" on his team claimed that Russian-American relations were best served when we checked our values at the door. Our relations with Russia, so the argument went, were so important to our vital security interests that President Bush should avoid talking about freedom and democracy when meeting with his Kremlin counterpart and instead focus the dialogue on the global war on terror or nonproliferation.

This argument was shortsighted and flawed. In the long run--even in the medium run--coddling dictators backfires. Only a democratic Russia will be a reliable partner for either U.S. foreign policymakers or American businesses. Only a democratic Russia will be able to build a legitimate state capable of fighting terrorism on Russian soil and thereby contributing to the global war on terrorism. Only a democratic Russia will stop threatening young democracies nearby in Ukraine and Georgia.

But now, after Bush's speech, the "realist" argument for ignoring Putin's rollback of democratic practices in the name of national security interests can only undermine Bush's credibility. Bush made clear that he planned to promote liberty in every pocket of the world--surely including the largest country of all.

If Bush goes to Bratislava and fails to reiterate the sentiments of his inaugural address in public appearances with Putin, then the critics were right and authoritarian leaders everywhere can sleep easy. If the president neglects to affirm his commitment to freedom with Putin at his side, Bush will be signaling that his words don't count.

Bush cannot begin an effective campaign to spread liberty this way. In this pivotal first meeting of his second term with a faltering democrat, Bush has to let Putin know that he understands, and worries about, Russia's autocratic drift over the last several years. In fact, Russia is the only major country in the world to experience significant democratic backsliding during Bush's first term. Arguably, Russia's increasing authoritarianism is the greatest setback to the third wave of democratization since it began in Portugal in 1974. For a president committed to liberty's advance, these facts cannot be ignored. The truth has to be told in Bratislava.

Making democracy a focus of the Slovak summit, however, does not require Bush to sever ties with his friend Putin or downgrade other aspects of U.S.-Russian relations. Indeed, Bush might bone up on Ronald Reagan's second-term approach toward the Soviet Union and pursue a dual-track strategy, simultaneously engaging both the Russian state and Russian society. Paradoxical though it might seem, a more substantive agenda at the state-to-state level would create more permissive conditions for Western engagement of Russian society. This is precisely what happened in the 1980s, when Ronald Reagan offered the Soviet regime serious cooperation on strategic matters even as he stood up for America's democratic principles.

What can Bush offer Putin? The logical place for a grand new initiative is in the nuclear sphere, particularly an acceleration of the dismantling of nuclear weapons. A treaty that defined rules for counting warheads, specified a timetable for their dismantling, included robust verification procedures, made cuts in arsenals permanent, and did not allow demobilized weapons to be put in storage (as is now the practice under the Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty signed in Moscow in 2002) would show not only the Russians but the rest of the world that the United States is serious about nonproliferation.

Second, Bush should push Congress to "graduate" Russia from the Jackson-Vanik amendment to the Trade Act of 1974 even before Russia joins the World Trade Organization. While some of the human rights problems that the amendment sought to correct by restricting the Soviet Union's trade status remain, Jackson-Vanik is an anachronism, strongly associated with the Soviet era; it does not address the new infringements of democratic norms, but simply grates on Russians, both officials and private citizens. At the same time, the administration can work with congressional leaders to initiate legislation to deal with new human rights abuses in Russia today and urge Congress to provide new resources to the Jackson Foundation, a nonprofit organization established with seed money from Congress to promote human rights and religious freedom in Russia.

Third, Bush must push Putin in areas important to the United States, including Russian support for the Iranian nuclear project and Russian meddling in the affairs of Georgia and Moldova.

When engaging Putin on this state-to-state agenda, there is no reason that Bush cannot also make the promotion of freedom inside Russia a central theme of the summit. If the summit has substance in other areas, it will be easier to introduce the "d" word.

In a one-day meeting, Bush is not going to be able to persuade Putin to end the war in Chechnya, stop using the law arbitrarily for political purposes, reconsider the decision to appoint previously elected governors, or ease up on the harassment of civil society leaders. But Bush must begin to convey why he and other democratic leaders see Russia's current political changes as cutting against the grain of democracy, a system of rule that reflects not only Western, but universal values.

Beyond the meeting in Bratislava, there are a number of steps President Bush can take to give his promotion of freedom in Russia credibility:

* Bush could praise the recent cease-fire announced by former Chechen president Aslan Maskhadov, and do everything in his power to strengthen the hand of those Chechens willing to negotiate with Moscow about Chechnya's sovereign status and weaken the jihadis fighting inside Chechnya, who care only about promoting Osama bin Laden's transnational agenda.

* Bush can stop requesting further cuts in the funds provided to Russia under the Freedom Support Act. Today, many American democracy-assistance organizations have bigger budgets for their work in Armenia than in Russia. The United States cannot abandon democratic activists in Russia now--before democracy has taken root. When Putin wields the power of the state to silence or marginalize political foes, Bush can stand in solidarity with those under attack. For instance, when Bush travels to Moscow next May, why not hold a public meeting with Russia's democratic forces in addition to the state-to-state meetings?

* Bush could put America's diplomatic weight behind the strengthening of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. Putin wants to destroy this organization, in large measure for the instrumental role the OSCE has played in exposing electoral fraud in post-Communist states. As Russia approaches a critical set of elections in 2007 and 2008, a robust OSCE is needed more than ever.

* Bush could work with other leaders of the four-year-old Community of Democracies to downgrade Russia's status in the organization. Russia today is not a democracy. To invite it to attend the next meeting of the Community of Democracies in Santiago, Chile, in May of this year as a member in good standing would undermine the legitimacy of this body.

* Even if Putin does not listen to him at Bratislava or beyond, Bush can speak frankly about Russia's democratic erosion, if only so as not to harm Russia's democrats. In a recent interview, Bush said, "The American president can speak clearly and be mindful that certain activities can prop up tyrants and cause tyrants to have a legitimacy that they don't deserve." In his first term, Bush said he liked what he saw when he peered into Putin's soul, and he praised the Russian president for his democratic leanings--comments that bolstered Putin's legitimacy and weakened the cause of democrats in Russia and elsewhere.

Taken together, the steps outlined above can ensure that Bush in his second term--like Ronald Reagan in his--stands up for what he believes without disengaging from Russia on nuclear arms reduction, nonproliferation, or fighting terrorism. Mid-level bureaucrats always perceive tradeoffs between democracy-promotion and strategic cooperation. Bush has an opportunity to pursue both.

James M. Goldgeier and Michael McFaul are professors at George Washington University and Stanford University respectively and the authors of Power and Purpose: U.S. Policy toward Russia after the Cold War.