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No Free Pass for Putin

September 25, 2003

Russia opposed the U.S. invasion of Iraq, but left the shouting to France and Germany. In the last year, Moscow has moved toward sharing Washington's alarm on the possibility that Iran could transform the output from a Russian-built nuclear power plant into weapons. The Kremlin has lined up on the U.S. side of the table in the face-off with North Korea, once its close ally. The Camp David summit between presidents Bush and Vladimir V. Putin, starting Friday, should be a love fest compared with the icy reception Bush got Tuesday at the United Nations. But improved U.S.-Russian relations should not translate into U.S. silence on key issues on which Moscow is going wrong.

Former KGB colonel Putin has installed colleagues from the one-time Soviet spy agency and the military in top posts; these appointees have reached into those same pools for their staffs. Putin's government has cracked down on independent media and arrested human rights activists. The regime recently launched a criminal probe of giant company Yukos Oil, after its leader made donations to opposition political parties.

These anti-democratic developments are a sorry contrast with the heady visions of a decade ago, when the Soviet Union's collapse spawned hopes of a Russia free from wiretaps and government spying, with an independent judiciary, unfettered media and strong civil institutions. Bush should protest Putin's poor choices. Bush speaks often of his desire for a democratic Iraq; Russians deserve democracy just as much.

Then, there's Chechnya, the republic where the Russian military kidnaps and kills civilians it thinks are terrorists or terrorist supporters. Before taking office, Bush rightly criticized Moscow's attacks on Chechens. After 9/11, the criticism has weakened, but Russian atrocities have not. There are Chechen terrorists, supported by Al Qaeda, who kill innocent Russians and seized hostages in a theater in the heart of Moscow. But indiscriminate retaliation has not stopped the attacks. Putin should rein in his army and work with moderate Chechens.

Unfortunately, the only serious candidate in the republic's pending presidential elections is pro-Kremlin; major opposition figures, fearing the Russian bear, have all bowed out.

Bush should not let Putin get away with interpreting opposition to terrorism as a pass to squash human rights. Moscow's support for nuclear nonproliferation is welcome and important; so are offers of petroleum and natural gas exports that can reduce U.S. dependence on OPEC supplies. But allies should not paper over disagreements; unacceptable behavior must be protested.

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