Features

Putin's romp

"Putin's romp" Continued...

Issue: "John Kerry's dream," March 13, 2004

Factionalism among even closely aligned parties is legendary. "Part of the problem is that the experience of living in a totalitarian society has crippled the political skills of the dissidents," according to Mr. Uzzell. Few have learned the art of negotiation and compromise, preferring pure power politics.

One prominent example is Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, the Russian author whose influential Gulag Archipelago earned him a hero's following in the West and a Nobel Prize for Literature in 1970. Mr. Solzhenitsyn returned home in 1994. Ever since, his writings have fallen out of vogue. Recent works sell fewer than 5,000 copies in Russia. Public statements, now rare, are met with ridicule. "They seem aimed to make people uncomfortable more than win them to any democratic cause," said Mr. Uzzell.

Religious dissidents, once formidable human-rights activists, now practice staying out of politics. Russians don't run into problems speaking about their faith these days, according to Mr. Uzzell, "unless you take that faith into the public square." So otherwise outspoken church leaders are silent on broader encroachments to liberty. They know "religious freedom has reached an equilibrium," said Mr. Uzzell. "There won't be any more of it, but there won't be any less, either."

That leaves lobbying for real liberalization to outsiders; namely, the United States. Yet the Bush doctrine on Russia has mostly rested on an adage. "I looked the man in the eye," the president said in June 2001 after his first meeting with Mr. Putin. "I found him to be very straightforward and trustworthy.... I was able to get a sense of his soul.... He's an honest, straightforward man who loves his country. He loves his family. We share a lot of values."

While Mr. Putin has cracked down on civil institutions and concentrated power in the Kremlin, Bush-Putin relations have coalesced around personal chemistry-fireside chats at the Crawford ranch and White Night boat tours of St. Petersburg.

At the same time, the payoff for good relations-Kremlin cooperation in the war on terror, nonproliferation of nuclear weapons, and support in the Middle East-may yield less than first appeared. Iraqi Oil Ministry documents suggest Russian officials may have been heavily involved in lucrative black-market deals to enrich Saddam Hussein. Russian firms have sold billions of dollars in weapons to the former Iraqi regime and other rogue nations. And just when accountability is needed most, Kremlin procedures are becoming more inscrutable, thanks to media crackdowns and near one-party rule.

Prominent conservatives and Russophiles increasingly want Mr. Bush to get tough once Mr. Putin becomes a lame-duck president. They argue that Russia is not a rightful member of G-8 summits and should be booted. Overseas financing of oil and gas projects should depend on proper resolution of the YUKOS scandal. U.S. foreign aid to Russian government agencies should drop, while support for nongovernmental agencies, particularly those that support democracy, should rise.

Mr. Putin "is obviously somebody we should do business with, but he is also somebody who is responsible for vicious human-rights abuses in Chechnya and for presiding over a police state," said Mr. Uzzell. If the Russian president is a lock in the election, Mr. Uzzell suggested, "we should be more of a truth teller" about him.

Mindy Belz
Mindy Belz

Mindy travels to the far corners of the globe as the editor of WORLD and lives with her family in the mountains of western North Carolina. Follow Mindy on Twitter @mcbelz.

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