HEADLINES IN the Western press are pessimistic about Russia's commitment to democracy. The arrest and conviction of Mikhail Khodorkovsky; the takeover of NTV; constitutional reforms that replace elected regional officials with appointed governors; vague assurances from Vladmir Putin that while he would not run for a third term in 2008, he would not disappear from Russian politics. All paint a portrait of sharp retreat from the Yeltsin era.
But the picture in Russia is more complex. Leaders in higher education and civil society have a more nuanced story to tell.
Changes underway in higher education are a good indicator of the deep transformation taking place in Russia. Private universities are gaining strength, and state universities are being encouraged to modernize by opening themselves and their curriculums to the West.
For instance, cutting-edge science is being conducted at 16 Research and Education Centers across the country. Affiliated scientists have produced thousands of publications. In the past year alone, more than 70 patents have been filed and 16 new enterprises have been started. Nine other campuses host Centers for Advanced Study and Education in the social sciences. They are building a cadre of policy experts that advise the government on issues like sustainable economic development, migration and ethnic diversity, human rights and the rule of law, and healthcare.
At the national level, the Ministry of Education and Science is bringing Russia into the ''Bologna process," which is creating a Europe-wide higher education area. University systems in 40 countries will have a common framework for undergraduate and graduate degrees, transferable credits, shared standards for academic quality, and mobility for students and faculty.
The isolation of Russian intellectual life is over. Although much more must be done before Russia's universities will fully recover from years of neglect and repression, the progress is real. These developments in higher education do not square with the image of Russia moving backward into isolation and suspicion of the outside world. No government bent on long-term authoritarian control would promote Internet connectivity, faculty and student exchanges, and the adoption of a Western model of higher education.
The MacArthur Foundation has been active in Russia since 1992, making a 20-year, $100 million commitment to building a robust system of higher education and to strengthening the country's intellectual life. In the area of human rights, we have made almost $20 million worth of additional grants.
The number of civil society groups is growing, and there is positive movement on fundamental issues. To be sure, the situation in Russia is paradoxical. On high profile cases of political sensitivity, the Kremlin interferes with the judicial process, is willing to use force to put down demonstrations, and violates civil rights in the pursuit of terrorists. Yet Russia has begun to improve prison conditions. A new criminal procedures code is making incremental improvements in the justice system. And a broad network of human rights groups across the country is working undeterred, often helping the government reform itself.
For instance, the INDEM Foundation is developing a registration process at police stations in 15 precincts in Moscow and Kazan. Because most instances of police torture occur during the first hours spent in custody, booking detainees, logging the charges against them, and other procedural improvements are an important step for combating abuse.
To monitor the police and the courts, human rights ombudsmen are at work in 31 of Russia's 89 regions, and there are plans for significant expansion. An umbrella organization of the ombudsmen is developing a common, automated system to register complaints and track their disposition. A USAID/Russia project on legal reform has helped more than 1,000 judges attend training seminars in the United States and has been building a database of Russian court decisions to enhance consistency and strengthen the judicial system.
Russia is at a critical crossroads. There is no question that Putin is tightening his grip on various sources of power -- political, economic, media. But so far, he has allowed civil society to grow, scholars to pursue their work, and niche media to criticize the government. The West needs to be open to a more nuanced view of Russia's progress while continuing to criticize the backward steps that Putin takes. This is a moment of paradox and new voices that requires patience as the country's fragile democracy takes root.
Jonathan F. Fanton is president of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.