WASHINGTON — It's hard to believe it was just last September when President Bush stood beside Russian President Vladimir V. Putin at Camp David and announced, "I respect President Putin's vision for Russia." Since then, things have turned decidedly sour.
In recent telephone conversations with his Russian counterpart, the president has expressed his displeasure over Russian actions in Chechnya and the nation's "failure to pursue democratic reforms." The U.S. ambassador to Moscow complained publicly in December about Russia's "breach of values," saying that recent Russian actions "could limit possibilities of expansion of our cooperation." And when Secretary of State Colin L. Powell visited Russia last month, he wrote a front-page essay for Izvestia in which he prodded Moscow on its human rights record in Chechnya, for its increasing media controls and for the arrest of Yukos Oil Co.'s former chief executive, Mikhail Khodorkovsky.
To understand why Russia and the United States are drifting apart again, it's crucial to understand just how differently Russians and Westerners view the 1990s. The West saw the decade as one of liberation and burgeoning democracy for Russia. Western observers felt that Russia was finally rejoining Europe politically and economically.
But for Russians, it was a decade of disintegration and false promises. At the beginning of the 1990s, Russia was an uninspiring, drab and politically repressive place, but it had a strong middle class and functioning institutions. By the end of a decade, it was something close to a failed state. Russians were glad to be able to speak their minds, but they watched helplessly as crime and other social ills took hold and the economy became wildly unstable. Tens of millions of Russians found themselves impoverished, as the government could no longer pay pensions and factories could no longer meet payrolls because of the disruption of internal trade. "Price reforms" led to massive inflation and overnight wiped out family savings accounts.
Even as they witnessed Russian suffering, most Western experts showed little concern for the pain inflicted and urged Russia to stay the capitalist course. The West held this position until the very day the financial dam finally burst in August 1998, when the Russian government devalued the ruble and suspended payment on most of its foreign debt.
Many Russians now see that disastrous era as the consequence of pursuing Western-style democracy and following Western-proffered advice. By contrast, they associate the current era of growing prosperity with Putin's coming to power.
To Russians, Putin's record of successes is impressive. Back wages and pensions are being paid. Growth is vigorous. Consumer goods are again being manufactured at home. Russia has paid off most of its foreign debt. And if high oil prices have been the single most significant factor in reversing Russia's fortunes, so what? Russians still credit Putin with the reversal, pointing to an impressive growth in domestic production and sound taxation policies that have also contributed to both growth and the restoration of health in public finances. Russians are pleased that their country is again a major player in foreign relations and that foreign leaders take Putin seriously in a way they never did his predecessor, Boris N. Yeltsin.
Yet there is abundant cause for concern about many of Putin's actions. He shows no signs of modifying Russia's brutal suppression of Chechnya's Muslim population, which is particularly incendiary in the current international framework. He has clamped down on fragile media freedoms. He has continued to act imperiously against his immediate neighbors, which undercuts Russia's credibility with the rest of Europe. It is incumbent on the West to encourage Putin to alter his course, and the good news is there are concrete steps that can be taken.
Russia's desire to be accepted as a Western power gives Western countries some leverage: That acceptance, and the closer economic and political ties that would follow, must be made contingent on Russia's continuing commitment to democratic reforms. The West must give Russia some incentives by spelling out more precisely how the rest of Europe is prepared to integrate Russia with its Western neighbors. Will the West admit Russia into NATO, as the Germans have suggested? If not, what positive security role will Europe permit a democratic Russia to play?