Before George W. Bush visits Moscow, he should reread his second inaugural address when he said that advancing democracy would be the foreign policy focus of his second term. It is on this point that he will be judged by history and Russia presents the greatest challenge.

Lots of dictators remain in power today but they already existed before George W. Bush came to the White House. Russia is an exception taking into account that, according to Freedom House is the only partially free country that moved to not free. Nonetheless, Bush has developed a close relationship with Vladimir Putin and that is a strategic mistake. The Russian president has undermined democratic institutions, independent media and civil society and has centralized power in his hands. This centralization of power may have helped advance economic reforms but it was not the case.

The struggle to replace Putin in 2008 has already begun but, unfortunately, none of the probable scenarios look promising. Putin’s favored successor is Defense Minister Serguei Ivanov, who has demonstrated little proclivity for advancing the democratic cause. Anyway, it looks unlikely that he will be able to beat Putin in a completely free and fair election. Unfortunately, in a truly free election, a nationalist-socialist coalition is likely to produce a more popular candidate than anyone put forth from the democratic bloc. In a third scenario, Putin could modify the constitution to be able to run for a third mandate or to give more power to the Prime Minister, a post that he himself could hold after the election of his successor.

Anyway, Putin is too popular right now and Russia is too big for Bush to allow himself the luxury of a direct confrontation with Moscow. In addition, the commemoration of what the Russians call the “Great Patriotic War” is not the best moment. Bush must make clear for Putin that if the 2008 elections are not completely free, it will be an obstacle for the development of Russian-American relations. Likewise, Bush will have to publicly support the Russian democrats like he supports the Iranians. It is necessary to demand international supervision of the Russian elections, with the same emphasis as those of Serbia in 2000, in Georgia in 2003 and in Ukraine in 2004. In addition, Bush’s visit to Georgia should represent the celebration of the new democracies of the region. This, however, should not prevent us from working with Russia in the fight against terrorism.

Los Angeles Times (United States)

" It’s OK to Scold the Backslider ", by Michael McFaul, Los Angeles Times, May 8, 2005.