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Bush loses moral standing to criticize Putin

AS PRESIDENT Bush prepares to meet with Russia's President Vladimir Putin, commentators have begun to urge Bush to chastise Putin for abandoning many of the democratic reforms that Russia so recently adopted. Unfortunately, it looks less and less likely that Bush will do any such thing. It is not only that we need to be nice to Russia for what it can do for us, but increasingly the United States seems to be adopting policies that at an earlier time we would have condemned as antidemocratic.

To begin with, Bush very much needs Putin's support for US efforts in Iraq. This involves not only help in passing a UN resolution limiting the role of the United Nations but an agreement to send troops, even if small in number, to help police Iraq.

No doubt there will also be discussion about restraining nuclear weapons development in both Iran and North Korea. Bush will also call on Putin to support efforts by Russian energy producers who want to begin the shipment to the United States of substantial quantities of crude oil and natural gas.

But Bush may find it inconvenient if not hypocritical should he try to call Putin to account for backsliding into habits that increasingly resemble those common to the old Soviet Union. Citing the increased threat of terrorism, the FSB (as the KGB is now called) has reinstituted wiretapping and random identity checks.

While the threat of terrorism is real, there is a growing concern that such threats are sometimes exaggerated to justify curbing civil liberties, some of which the FSB has always considered to be too permissive. Yet how can Bush criticize Putin for this without reining in his own Attorney General John Ashcroft for exactly the same thing?

Similarly, journalists in Russia are bemoaning the fact that Putin has moved aggressively to reduce the number of independent media outlets. The government now not only owns or controls all the TV networks in the country, but independent print or radio outlets that criticize Putin or his policies invite harassment and complaints about unpatriotic opposition to Russian government policies. But who are we to complain about Putin when our own Federal Communications Commission has proposed regulations that also allow the increased concentration of media outlets in a few hands?

Moreover, some of our journalists now complain that aggressive questioning at White House press briefings is also penalized. Reporters who ask nasty questions find that government officials including President Bush will not call on them in the future.

There is also growing concern about government interference in the electoral process. When it appeared that Putin's favored candidate for president in Chechnya might not win, the opposing candidates were either bought out or forced to withdraw from the race. Nor is this the only instance where candidates for office in Russia have found themselves pushed off the ballot or on occasion retired or recalled (a la California) from office.

Russians have also come to learn that he who opposes Putin will likely have a price to pay. Executives of the oil company Yukos who contributed tens of millions of dollar to opposition parties soon found Yukos besieged by at least eight separate investigations by state authorities. This included allegations that Yukos officials were involved in five murders as well as theft of state property, tax evasion, and extortion. Unlike the United States these days, there was no perp walk -- or, for that matter, a trial -- but two senior Yukos officials have been kept in jail since July 2.

Yes, there are some differences. We jail our corporate executives for fraud and theft, not because they oppose President Bush. Yet the Republican leadership in Congress has begun to insist that lobbyists who expect to do business with the federal government must hire only Republicans or they will be denied contracts.

As these presidential soulmates sit down in Crawford, Texas, to compare notes, sadly they may find they have even more in common than they initially assumed. This is unfortunate not only for the Russians, but for those of us in the USA who fear that we are becoming more like what they, rather than what we, used to be.

Marshall I. Goldman is the author of "The Piratization of Russia: Russian Reform Goes Awry" and professor of economics emeritus at Wellesley College.

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