Lost in (Russian) translation

Some 45 years ago, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev paid his first visit to the United States. It was a turbulent encounter for both Khrushchev and Americans. Khrushchev scoffed at American economic prosperity, deplored Hollywood's tastelessness, and predicted communism would bury capitalism. (Some prediction!)

Seeking to deflect criticism of Russia's lack of freedoms, he was on the offensive. At a state dinner hosted by President Eisenhower, Khrushchev got into an exchange with Vice President Nixon about the US press, suggesting that it was a submissive handmaiden of the American government. Present in the room was the editor of The Christian Science Monitor, Erwin Canham. Pointing to Canham, Nixon explained that he couldn't possibly control the editorial policy of the Monitor, Canham's newspaper. Khrushchev responded dismissively: "I don't believe you."

Incredibly, almost half a century later, Russia's current leader, Vladimir Putin, was as similarly defensive about Russia's lack of media independence, and as similarly lacking in his understanding of American freedoms. At his meeting in Europe with President Bush earlier this year, President Putin argued that if the US press was so free, how come Mr. Bush had been able to get rid of Dan Rather and those other pesky CBS reporters? The Russian's apparent belief that in the US, the president could fire reporters filled Bush and his staff with incredulity.

These two little anecdotes, more than four decades apart, underline a continuing lack of comprehension at high Russian levels of what democracy really means, and how it works.

It is a misunderstanding that bedevils the US-Russian relationship as Bush preaches the values of democracy, and Putin proclaims them but edges away from practicing them.

Last week, on her first visit to Russia as secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice strove to keep the relationship on track, while at the same time making no secret of the Bush administration's discomfort with Putin's growing control of the Russian media, his authoritarian centralization of power in the Kremlin, the abuse of the legal system, and the apparent erosion of free-market principles.

The US-Russia relationship today is clearly infinitely more cordial and collaborative than in the bad old days of the cold war. Bush wants good economic ties with the Russians and continuing Russian support in the war against terrorism. But, as is also the case with China, he is pressing Russia to perform more compassionately in the area of human rights and in moving democracy forward.

Secretary Rice last week was careful to reassure Putin that the US is not on a campaign to supplant Moscow's influence in the neighboring states that once made up the Soviet Union. She also reaffirmed that the Bush administration has no intention of blocking Russia's admission to the World Trade Organization, or denying its membership in the G-8, the association of the world's most industrialized nations, as some critics of Russia's recent authoritarian actions have urged. But she did remind the Russian leadership that G-8 membership carries responsibility to hew to democratic principles and the rule of law. She chided Putin for his backsliding in these areas.

Russia, as Rice conceded, is not the old Soviet Union. Russians today can travel abroad and emigrate. There is more freedom to pray and worship in the religions of their choice. Though the pro-Kremlin United Russia Party dominates the Duma, or parliament, political parties exist and express diverse viewpoints. There are public demonstrations and there is criticism of government actions by student groups.

But Putin's announcement last year of an overhaul of the political system that would centralize power in the Kremlin was particularly jarring to proponents of democracy, as was a crackdown on industrialists like Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the now imprisoned head of the Yukos oil group.

Mr. Khodorkovsky was one of the new multibillionaire oligarchs who benefited from the spinoff of state energy corporations under "privatization" reforms of the Boris Yeltsin era. That process left much to be desired. As Harvard Russian expert Marshall Goldman put it in a Foreign Affairs article last year, "By the time Putin succeeded Yeltsin in 2000, there was much to remedy." Putin was also irritated by Khodorkovsky's meddling in politics and hints that he might run for president in 2008.

Putin's moves to strip Khodorkovsky of his economic power and neutralize him politically have been heavy-handed. Under Putin, Mr. Goldman concludes, Russia is "reversing some of the most important economic and political reforms it adopted after freeing itself from the yoke of communism."

No wonder then, that the direction of the US-Russia relationship is uncertain.

John Hughes, a former editor of the Monitor, is editor and chief operating officer of the Deseret Morning News.

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