Rumblings in Russia

Just over a week ago, a meeting took place in Moscow that's remarkable not necessarily for its outcome, but that it occurred at all.

Russia's rival liberal and communist politicians gathered under one roof to figure out a way to counter President Vladimir Putin's dangerous rollback of Russia's fledgling democracy.

Unfortunately, they were unable to produce more than a pledge to cooperate. But together with public criticism from, for instance, Mr. Putin's own economic minister, the meeting of more than 1,000 people indicates rumblings of resistance to the president's autocratic actions.

Unlike Ukraine's President Leonid Kuchma, who, try as he might, appears unable to stop his country's "orange revolution" toward full-throated democracy, Putin is probably unfazed by the potential unification of a Russian democratic movement.

Why should he be? By muzzling most of the media, undermining the electoral process, trampling the rule of law, and increasing government control of the wealthy energy sector, he's amassed substantial power and allowed little room for dissent.

The population, entranced by Putin's siren song of restoring Russian greatness, is going along, rewarding him with job approval ratings of around 70 percent.

Should this quiet rumbling of Russian democrats escalate into a roar, one can imagine measures to silence it - such as a crackdown on the print media and Internet (already being discussed), or on individuals.

In this context, the role of outsiders takes on increasing importance. This especially applies to President Bush, who, in the interest of US military goals, has put friendly personal relations with Putin ahead of sharp criticism.

This paid off initially when the US withdrew from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, which gave the all-clear for a US missile-defense project ("star wars"); and in setting up US military bases in Central Asian nations on Russia's southern flank to help fight the war in Afghanistan.

In more recent years, the diplomatic payoff has been less obvious. Russia has opposed the invasion of Iraq, proved of little help in nuclear nonproliferation, and exacerbated Islamic extremism through its hard-line approach in Chechnya. Most important, Putin's blatant antidemocratic interference in the Ukrainian election puts him directly at odds with Mr. Bush, whose legacy now hinges on promoting liberty around the world.

Reportedly, the administration is reviewing its Russia policy. Soft-pedaling is no longer acceptable. But neither is a return to cold-war rhetoric.

The US must work hard through diplomacy and Bush's personal ties with Putin on vital issues like nonproliferation and antiterrorism. But supporting democracy in Russia is just as important; and through words, closer coordination with European partners, and funds, the new administration must speak more loudly.

Russia's democrats need that voice to help amplify theirs.

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