Getting real about democracy in Eurasia

You can't say President Bush doesn't think big. Ending tyranny in the world was the message at his 2005 inaugural, and it's the main goal in the administration's updated playbook on national security. But he also recognizes it's not one-size-fits-all in democracy building, and that's welcome realism.

"Though our principles are consistent, our tactics will vary," says the National Security Strategy report released by the White House last week. Sometimes the US will take "vocal and visible" steps toward change. At other times, it "will lend more quiet support to lay the foundation for future reforms."

That mixed approach is especially visible - and appropriate - in the vast Eurasian region that used to be the Soviet Union.

In Europe's last dictatorship of Belarus, which just held a so-called presidential election Sunday, US options to dislodge tyranny are limited.

Washington can and does shine the spotlight on the injustices of that small country's strong-arm president - loudly criticizing the arrests, beatings, and disappearances of opposition leaders. Top administration people, including Mr. Bush, can and have met with opposition figures. The US can and is financially supporting the development of a civic society in Belarus. And it's maximizing its leverage by consulting with the European Union on targeted sanctions against the leaders of the Belarussian government.

But it's restricted by the tight control exercised by President Alexander Lukashenko and the KGB (yes, it's still called that). Mr. Lukashenko is also popular (though not 82.6 percent popular, as Sunday's results claimed) because of low unemployment and higher wages - no small thanks to neighbor Russia, which gives Belarus a huge break on energy.

Next door in the much larger Ukraine, which pulled off an inspiring, peaceful democratic revolution 15 months ago, US tools of influence are more sophisticated - and potentially more meaningful. As a reward for reforms, Washington has granted Ukraine a series of trade privileges and continues to encourage it toward NATO membership. But will US influence be undermined by looming parliamentary elections? Ukraine is experiencing the political and economic turmoil typical of postrevolutions, and the party of the previous regime might well stage a comeback.

Travel east, to the central Asian giant of Kazakhstan, and US policy is particularly nuanced. Last year, the president there pulled off a dubious landslide victory. Yet the US was surprisingly muted in its response. Why? The State Department says the nation's democratic trend line is moving in the right direction. Strategically, Kazakhstan is awash in oil, and its Muslims could be a potential target for radicalization.

Of course, the biggest democratic challenge of all in Eurasia is Russia, steadily backtracking on freedoms but still vitally important when it comes to global security. The US should apply to Russia the considered response it has shown regionally - a combination of vocal and quiet diplomacy. But ultimately, as the administration's strategic report says, countries themselves must choose their own path. The US can push and entice, but it must remember its limitation as a builder of democracies.

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