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Beyond Putin's Soul

February 24, 2005

Hopefully President Bush has improved his soul-reading skills while in office. During his first year as president he famously proclaimed that he'd acquired a sense of Vladimir V. Putin's soul and found him to be trustworthy.

When Bush looks into Putin's eyes today during their meeting in Bratislava, Slovakia, he should try to divine whether Putin is now capable of reversing course and putting Russia back on the path toward greater freedom and becoming a mature democracy. That's Bush's oft-proclaimed goal in countries great and small, but one growing more distant in Russia.

For much of Bush's first term, relations with Russia offered the White House little grief. Putin's initial moves to stabilize the country, an effort made easier by Russia's rising oil revenues, were applauded. Despite his perfunctory opposition to the war in Iraq, Putin sold himself to Washington as an ally in the fight against Islamist fundamentalism, and he marketed his war in Chechnya as a front in the global war on terrorism. Putin practically endorsed Bush for reelection.

The relationship is likely to sour in Bush's second term. It needs some souring, in light of Putin's recent autocratic behavior. On Monday, Bush rightly warned Moscow it needs to "renew a commitment to democracy and the rule of law" if it wants good relations with the United States and Europe. The admonition was the latest in a deserved series of public expressions of U.S. concern about increasing Kremlin control over the media, parliament, regional governments, the legal system and the economy.

Now in his own second term as president, Putin has seen his popularity at home decline as he has crippled political opposition, disregarding the rule of law by summarily expropriating private investment and seeking to reduce payments to the elderly, disabled and poor.

Putin's clumsiest move was his ill-fated attempt to influence last year's Ukrainian presidential race. The European Union and the United States stood together then in deploring the Russian interference, and more of that unity will be needed in pressing Putin to respect civil liberties at home and to help the West in confronting nations such as Iran and North Korea. Russian membership in the World Trade Organization should be conditioned on a commitment by Putin to do better at respecting the rights of a free media and a free market. It won't do Moscow any good to increase potential foreign investors' worries about a corrupt judiciary and the threat of state takeover of private companies at the whim of the Kremlin.

Washington can benefit from Russian help in the Middle East, where Moscow is a partner with the U.S., Europe and the United Nations in implementing the so-called road map to peace, and in dealing with North Korea. But Bush cannot mute his criticism of Putin's more autocratic moves, lest he undermine U.S. credibility to press for greater freedoms elsewhere.

There is only so much the outside world can do to advance the cause of Russian democracy, which is far from irretrievably lost. But it can do more than mere soul-reading.

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