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Published: Sunday, 4/24/2005

Both Putin, Rice get something from talk

The visit by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to Moscow last week got only a brief media coverage in this country.

It should have had at least 10 times that.

What few realize is that Ms. Rice's trip was perhaps the most meaningful visit of a secretary of state to Russia since the Cold War. Luckily at least one radio station in Moscow gave her a lot of air time.

The thing is that recent regime changes in several former Soviet republics that delivered them from Russia's dictate and brought them closer to the West and its democratic values have anguished the Kremlin. The new governments of Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan enjoying U.S. support are viewed by the increasingly insecure Kremlin as new adversaries in Russia's backyard.

Moreover, the Putin regime blames the United States, which has sponsored nongovernmental organizations and the independent media in those countries, for its new distress.

As a result, the Kremlin's fear of a similar regime change in the increasingly authoritarian Russia has reached the point where the planned visit of President Bush to Moscow next month was not a given.

Energetic support by President Bush of democracy overseas has inspired the Kremlin ideologues to compare him to Leo Trotsky, who used to advocate export of revolution by military means. They figure a visit by a revolutionary of that caliber could upset the delicate balance in the country divided by the Kremlin attempts to take over the most successful enterprises such as the former oil giant YUKOS on one hand and the government's highly unpopular welfare reform on the other.

Scared to distraction by their own advisers, Russian President Vladimir Putin and his entourage needed to talk to Ms. Rice to see if their fears were founded.

To give her credit, she must have realized that and made herself available not only to top officials but the media as well. Over and over again she assured the Russians that the United States is not interested in revolution of any kind in Russia and that "Russian democracy has potential" (translation back from Russian is mine).

It remains to be seen whether the Kremlin believed her. But at least for now it looks like Mr. Bush's visit will occur as planned and that Mr. Putin will bite the bullet and sit through Mr. Bush's sure-to-come lecture on democracy with a signature poker face.

With oil prices hitting the record $58 a barrel earlier this month and speculations of them reaching $75 come winter, it is no secret why the two need each other. Mr. Bush needs Russia to make up for lost oil imports from the Persian Gulf, and Mr. Putin needs the United States to buy Russian oil that finances his failed economic policies and re-militarization campaign.

There is another reason why Washington tolerates the Kremlin's antidemocratic antics such as the use of tax police and courts to persecute unwanted, mostly Jewish, entrepreneurs. It is poorly guarded Russian weapons of mass destruction that Washington doesn't want to fall into terrorists' hands.

Ms. Rice claimed some progress in opening those sites to U.S. inspection when she talked to reporters last week.

This progress is important, but her unclaimed success in allaying Mr. Putin's paranoia is far more significant.



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