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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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.