Obama must back ideals of Russia protests, not Putin

Protests planned for Saturday in Russian cities are a cry for dignity and respect. They deserve moral support from Obama, not Putin's heavy hand.

President Obama’s “reset” of US ties with Moscow since 2009 has forced him to juggle a plateful of practical priorities – from arms reduction to Kremlin help in the Afghanistan war.

But this weekend, he must focus on the most important American priority.

Tens of thousands of Russians plan to rally Saturday in dozens of cities in hopes of regaining their rights and dignity after the highly flawed election for parliament Dec. 4.

Daily flash protests began Monday in various cities. Young people, already upset at Vladimir Putin’s presumption of his return to the presidency, were further incensed by a YouTube video showing an official stuffing a ballot box.

Mr. Obama cannot ignore this surprise eruption of Russian frustration over Mr. Putin’s denial of basic democracy.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has already spoken up, giving support to the “rights and aspirations of the Russian people.” She also criticized the official conduct of the election. The wisdom of her action was reflected in the verbal tongue-lashing given to her by Putin.

Now Obama must openly side with the protesters. The leader of the free world cannot lead from behind on the question of freedom for the world’s largest country.
Obama was too quiet during Iran’s 2009 protests for democracy. He was late in backing the 2011 Arab Spring. In both cases, young people looked for moral support from the American leader. Perhaps Obama was just too hesitant to adopt the “freedom agenda” of his predecessor.

With Russia possibly on the verge of its own “spring” (or color revolution), Obama cannot be hesitant again. Putin appears worried about his future. His popularity has dropped by 20 points. The party that backs him, United Russia, failed to win half the votes in the election – despite the heavy hand of the state to control the results.

Putin’s desperation is reflected in his attempt to pin the protests on the United States. But he’s simply playing the nationalist card, trying to conjure up a foreign foe in hopes Russians will rally behind him – rather than the ideals of a free society.

But Russians are fed up with the prospect of Putin possibly ruling until 2024 – as well as over rampant corruption. The swarming of police against this week’s protests only shows the extent of an authoritarian mentality inside the Kremlin.

Even the last Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, has called for a new vote and for an official admission of “numerous falsifications and ballot stuffing.”

In recent months, Obama’s ties with Putin have been going downhill. Russia has not cooperated with the West on the Syrian uprising or Iran’s nuclear threat. It plans to place nuclear missiles near Europe as a way to force more concessions on a joint missile-defense shield. And it hints at pulling out of the New START treaty.

Such reversals of policy show just how little the West can trust Moscow until it adopts a full democracy. It’s time for Obama to put his trust in the Russian people.

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