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Published: Sunday, 2/13/2005

U.S. silence emboldens Russian 'democracy'

Wishful thinking and narrow-minded utilitarianism are once again dominating U.S. policy toward Russia as another U.S.-Russian summit is coming up this month.

Informed analysts expect Russian arms exports to dominate the summit agenda. Washington is troubled by Russian exports of weapons to countries the U.S. administration considers unfriendly, particularly Moscow's plans to sell advanced portable anti-aircraft missiles to Syria.

So Washington could think of nothing better than putting on a mask of polite concern over the trouble with democracy in Russia, forever hopeful that flirting with Moscow will secure it as a partner in the war on terror.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who met with her Russian opposite number in Turkey last week, told Reuters it would be counterproductive to punish Moscow over concerns the Kremlin has allowed apparently politically motivated trials and restricted the media.

Meantime, Moscow has set an all-time record in hard-currency revenues from weapons exports, most of which go to countries Washington is concerned about, such as China, Syria, and North Korea. The $5.7 billion worth of weapons and military equipment exported last year exceeds in values even record exports of weaponry by the Soviet Union, which gave away a lot of it for free.

Russian officials have announced they have no plans to adjust their list of trade partners to fit Washington concerns. Moreover, aviation sales account for half the figure, according to Russian official sources - understandably a U.S. concern, especially after 9/11.

In the United States worries over Russian domestic issues are taking a back seat. These issues include reversing the democratic change by persecuting political opposition, the independent media outlets, and instituting Kremlin command over the legislators, the regional authorities, and the judiciary.

There is also a nasty Kremlin trend of faking its own political opposition, by sponsoring parties that call for an even harsher tightening of the screws. Examples include the Motherland (Rodina) party headed by Duma member Dmitry Rogozin, a reporter by training and a bureaucrat by calling - a political nonentity who is faking a fashionable parliamentary opposition to the Putin regime.

The Rodina parliamentary faction has been pushing for a Duma vote of nonconfidence in the government since the Beslan hostage massacre last year. Earlier this year, its members held a hunger strike in protest of an unpopular retiree benefits reform.

At the same time it is clear that any government reshuffle in present-day Russia would increase the number of pro-Kremlin hardliners at the helm. The Kremlin uses this threat as a trump card to entice more leniency from Washington, which espouses a "tested" principle - "better the devil you know than the devil you don't."

That's not to say that Washington is neglecting to pay lip service to its crusade for democracy.

"It is important that Russia makes clear to the world that it is intent on strengthening the rule of law, strengthening the role of an independent judiciary and committed to a free and independent press," Miss Rice said at a news conference after meeting her Russian counterpart. "These are all the basics of democracy."

However, she later could not come up with a meaningful answer when a Reuters reporter asked her how the United States could pressure Russia to change its behavior.

"I don't really think that the isolation of Russia from the broad trends that are developing worldwide is the answer," she said.

Neither is indulging Moscow with a summit, at which it will most certainly make another pitch for a coveted membership in the World Trade Organization in exchange for arms export concessions the Kremlin is unlikely to honor, especially in the long run.



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