Washington, 18 February 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Behind the public friendliness, U.S. President George W. Bush's aides say the president is frank with Russian President Vladimir Putin about U.S. concern over the state of democracy in Russia.
During her confirmation hearing before the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee on 18 January, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said: "In Russia, we see that the path to democracy is uneven and that its success is not yet assured. Yet recent history shows that we can work closely with Russia on common problems. And as we do so, you can be assured that we will continue to press the case for democracy, and we will continue to make clear that the protection of democracy in Russia is vital to the future of U.S.-Russian relations."
To call the path to democracy "uneven," as Rice did, might seem an understatement to Bruce Jackson, president of the Project on Transitional Democracies, a Washington-based nongovernmental organization that helps pro-democracy groups around the world. Jackson appeared before the same Senate committee on 17 February and characterized Putin's governance of Russia far more bluntly. "I do not think it is accurate to say that democracy is in retreat in Russia. Democracy has been assassinated in Russia, and it was deliberate," he said.
Jackson was among six witnesses to testify before the panel about what they called the precarious state of freedoms in Russia. The witnesses included Steven Theede, the chief executive of Yukos, who spoke of the Russian oil company's treatment at the hands of Putin's government.
While Theede's testimony focused on the business climate, other witnesses spoke of the broader political realities, from Russia's close ties to repressive governments in Belarus and Kazakhstan to its involvement in internal politics in Georgia and Ukraine. They also cited Moscow's control of the electronic media and Putin's new right to appoint local governors.
"I admire President Putin's vision of building democracy and freedom and the rule of law in Russia." - Bush in 2003
At one point, the witnesses were asked to recommend ways the United States -- and specifically Bush himself -- should respond to Putin's policies. Suggestions ranged from opposing Russia's membership in the World Trade Organization to preventing it from participating in Group of Eight (G-8) summits, where top world leaders discuss economic and political policies.
Some witnesses said Bush should not only present his views privately to Putin, but should also make them public. One, Anders Aslund, said Bush should go even further and recant some of his public praise for Putin. Aslund, of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a Washington think tank, quoted a statement Bush made about Putin in September 2003:
"'I admire President Putin's vision of building democracy and freedom and the rule of law in Russia.' That is what should be clearly and firmly denied," Aslund said. "Such a statement should not be left on the record. I think that President Bush has a moral right [to] publicly revoke that statement when he meets President Putin."
Aslund said he believes that Putin's authoritarian style of governing may eventually lead to his own undoing. He said that while many Russians have expressed a desire for strong leadership, they are beginning to show displeasure with their president in protests over the abolition of Soviet-style benefits.
"This [recent spate of protests in Russia] reminds me very much of what happened in Poland in August 1980, when Solidarity was founded. And we saw how that ended. So indeed, I think that this shows that President Putin's power has passed the peak," Aslund said.
But regardless of recent dissatisfaction in Russia, Aslund said that U.S. pressure is needed to convince Putin to get his country back on the path to democracy.