Russia, a Glass Half Full?

For the last 10 days, Russia's backsliding on its young democracy has been under intense scrutiny.

The retrogression dominated the press conference between Presidents Bush and Putin in Slovakia last week, with Mr. Bush chiding his soul-mate "Vladimir" about the necessity for free media, rule of law, and vibrant political opposition.

The State Department echoed these points and added others in its detailed annual human rights report Monday.

Mr. Putin's shift is troubling, and puts his country on a dangerous course. But usually, when the world hears so much about one side of an issue, something's being lost in the telling.

Now is an opportune time to note that while Russia is turning back the clock on some freedoms, it still allows many others. Generally, the government respects religious rights, though it imposes some restrictions, especially on minority religions, according to the State Department's report. Generally, Russians are free to travel in and out of the country. And as recent demonstrations show, citizens can protest unpopular government programs.

Television news may have been hijacked by the state, but newspapers still rail against the president. Independent pollsters take the pulse of the people. Their findings, which show Putin's support steadily declining, can't please the Kremlin's top man.

And on the very day that Bush put democracy front and center at the joint press conference, so did a Russian politician. Mikhail Kasyanov, whom Putin sacked as prime minister last year, said Putin's policies have put Russia "on the wrong track." Mr. Kasyanov is viewed as a credible candidate who could run for president in 2008, when Putin's not eligible (unless he changes the Constitution).

The truth is, it's not clear where Russia's headed. Putin claims it's impossible to go back to totalitarianism, and it's hard to imagine citizens acquiescing. The West hoped it would live up to European democratic standards, but perhaps - with Russia straddling Europe and Asia - it will follow the Singapore model: capitalism on a loose leash; politics on a tight one.

Still, as President Bush navigates relations with Moscow, and as members of Congress throw out suggestions like suspending Russia from the G-8, they would do well to consider the full contextual landscape of that vast and complex country.

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