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Published: Sunday, 2/1/2004

U.S. nudge of Russia upsetting, but realistic

Many a Russian had looked forward to last week s visit to Moscow by Secretary of State Colin Powell.

Those who had high expectations of this visit may feel disappointed.

To be sure, Secretary Powell did push the envelope a little by publishing an article critical of the Kremlin before he actually met with Russian President Vladimir Putin. The article mildly criticizes the crackdown on the independent media and opposition, the war in Chechnya, and Russia s renewed ambitions in some of the former Soviet republics.

When Mr. Powell did meet with the Russian president, he delivered what many consider the first direct criticism of the Kremlin since President Bush and President Putin bonded during the 2001 summit in Crawford, Texas.

But Mr. Putin took it in stride, if you don t count a slightly sarcastic remark when he welcomed a chance to discuss matters directly with Mr. Powell.

Like it or not, this criticism was lost in friendly declarations, which contrasted sharply with the dark mood of Russian liberals lamenting the country s slide back toward autocracy.

Mr. Putin assured Mr. Powell of stability of Russia s policy toward the United States.

He even hinted that Russian troops may pull out of Georgia sooner than planned, despite Russian concerns about the presence of U.S. military advisers in the former Soviet republic, which Russia considers its backyard.

The secretary of state reciprocated with a serenade to Mr. Putin s flexibility and openness in discussing matters of U.S. concern.

So the U.S. rebuke to the increasingly autocratic Mr. Putin that liberals were hoping for failed to materialize. Instead, came a gentle nudge. Some see it as handing Mr. Putin s “controlled democracy” carte blanche.

But if liberals in Russia thought that either the White House or the Kremlin would risk aggravating each other and losing face on the eve of presidential elections in the two countries, they should think again.

It is also unrealistic to expect the United States, with vital interests in Iraq, Iran, and North Korea, traditional Russian allies, to antagonize Mr. Putin by preaching democracy.

A more realistic approach for the Russian liberals would be to unite and support Russia s only prospective presidential candidate with a liberal platform: former deputy Duma speaker Irina Khakamada, who is now supported by less than half of them.

Unless Russian liberals unite and reverse the dilution of Russia s democratic institutions, no foreign power will help.

Ironically, Ms. Khakamada might have just made it a little harder to sell Russians on a liberal agenda. Just as Mr. Powell was meeting with Mr. Putin, she was on a visit to Washington, where she had an unofficial meeting with National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, who is widely portrayed by the Russian media as an anti-Russian hawk.

If history teaches us anything, a failure by the liberals to unite against the Kremlin would result in an economically ineffective police state, which would fall apart when oil prices drop, as the Soviet Union did a little over 12 years ago.

This likely prospect poses a threat to the United States. Failure to secure Russia s weapons of mass destruction, which miraculously did not go off when the U.S.S.R. went belly up, could be catastrophic for America.

Mike Sigov, a Russian-born journalist, is a staff writer for The Blade.



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