Washington Post, 3 March 2000

Not since the August 1991 coup attempt has the future of Russian democracy
been more uncertain than it is today. Ironically, at a time when Russian
society has embraced individual liberties, a free press and competitive
elections, the new leader of the Russian state, Acting President Vladimir
Putin, has demonstrated real ambivalence toward democracy.

American inattention to the cause of Russian democracy also has never been
greater. Focused on short-term "deliverables" such as ratifying the Start II
treaty or amending the ABM Treaty, the Clinton administration has praised
Putin as a liberal democrat and at the same time cut U.S. democratic
assistance programs to Russia. This trade--cooperation on arms control in
return for a free hand to pursue anti-democratic policies at home--is a bad
one for both the Russian and American people.

For years we assumed that the real threats to Russian democracy would come
from outside the state. In 1993, it looked to be neo-nationalist Vladimir
Zhirinovsky; in 1996 it seemed to be Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov. Now
the real threat comes from within the state. It is fashionable in the West to
cite Russia's weak state as the source of the country's ills. In the
political realm, however, the Russian state is still too strong, able to
dominate and manipulate a beleaguered and weak Russian society.

In the last years of Boris Yeltsin, we did not witness the state's awesome
power because the man at the controls was often absent or incapacitated.

Since Putin's rise to power, however, we have seen what this state can do
when a leader with ambition and a pulse is at the helm.

In the realm of electoral politics, the Russian state looked more robust than
ever during the December 1999 parliamentary campaign, wielding its power in
ways that exacted considerable damage to democratic institutions. Putin and
his allies created a party, Unity, out of thin air in October, which then won
nearly a quarter of the vote in December. State television incessantly
promoted the new party and destroyed its opponents with a barrage of negative
advertising never before seen in Russian politics.

More gruesome has been Putin's deployment of state resources in Chechnya.
Russia has a right to defend its borders. Yet, the atrocious violations of
human rights in the cause of defending Russia's borders reveals the low
priority Putin assigns to democratic principles.

Independent journalists and academics also have felt the power of the Russian
state under Putin. Reporters such as Andrei Babitsky from Radio Free Europe
have suffered the consequences of reporting news from Chechnya that
inconveniences the Kremlin. Equally disturbing is the case of Igor Sutyagin,
a researcher on security issues who sits in jail because he shared open
source documents with an American colleague.

And more anti-democratic measures may be in the works after the March
presidential election. Putin advisers speak openly about eliminating
proportional representation from the Duma electoral law, a revision that
would practically eliminate all pro-democratic political parties in Russia.
Putin and his aides also have expressed support for the highly
anti-democratic idea of appointing rather than electing governors. Putin has
even hinted that he would like to extend the term of the Russian president to
seven years, instead of four.

Individually, none of these innovations would spell the end of democracy. In
combination, however, they could recreate a system dominated by a single
"party of power," i.e., the Kremlin.

Despite all of these ominous signs, it would be wrong to conclude that Putin
is an "anti-democrat." The Russian president is simply too modern and too
Western-oriented to believe in dictatorship. Rather, Putin is indifferent to
democratic principles and practices, believing perhaps that Russia might have
to sacrifice democracy in the short run to achieve "more important" economic
and state building goals.

Because Putin wants cooperation with the West, the Clinton administration now
has an opportunity to help the cause of Russian democracy. Rather than shower
Putin with faint praise about his businesslike demeanor as a way to secure
the Russian president's support for arms control treaties, Clinton and his
foreign policy team need to stress that the preservation of democracy in
Russia is a precondition for cooperation. In parallel to a more constructive
engagement of Putin regarding issues of human rights, the United States also
needs to give greater support to Russian societal forces still fighting to
preserve Russian democracy.

This means empowering human rights activists through high-level meetings with
U.S. officials. It also means increasing, not decreasing as currently
planned, assistance programs designed to strengthen the independent media,
trade unions, political parties, civil society and the rule of law.

Arms control did not end the Cold War. Rather, it was the collapse of
communism and the emergence of democracy within the Soviet Union and then
Russia that suspended the international rivalry between the United States and
the Soviet Union. If a new nationalist dictatorship eventually consolidates
in Russia, we will go back to spending trillions on defense to deter a rogue
state with thousands of nuclear weapons.

In Russia, democracy is not yet lost. Clinton still has the opportunity to
help promote its consolidation. If, however, Russian democracy fails, no one
will remember who ratified the Start II treaty.