When the Soviet Union collapsed, most Russians looked forward to joining the Free World as quickly as possible. Having been a student and a reporter in the USSR, I soon found myself attending conferences with enthusiastic Russian reformers. At one point, I complimented my colleagues on having chosen a difficult path. I noted that in any library there were dozens of scholarly books on the transition from capitalism to socialism.
But a serious discussion on how to transition from socialism to democratic capitalism? That was as unlikely as a cookbook explaining how to make eggs out of omelets.
That got a little laugh. So I added how in Africa, where I also had worked for a number of years, democratic institutions and free markets have mostly failed. The lessons of those failures, I suggested, were worth examining.
An uncomfortable silence ensued. It was clear I had caused offense. Then, in tense tones, I was instructed that we were discussing Russia now. We were talking about sophisticated people who had been kept in chains by Communism, among the most oppressive ideologies ever conceived. Now that Russians were finally free, they would know how to defend their freedom. Soon, they would be living like their neighbors in Western Europe.
I should have nodded and shut up. Instead I said: “But Russia's neighbors are not all in Europe. Afghanistan, Iran, North Korea, China – those are your neighbors, too.”
This was not the first conference at which I made myself unpopular. It probably won't be the last. But I've been reminded of it in recent days as I've watched with dismay what appears to be Russia's drift from democracy.
With terrorism and the conflicts in the Middle East dominating the news, this trend has hardly captured the public's attention. But its significance is enormous. Because if Russia – with all its vast natural and human resources – were to slip back into authoritarianism, what would that imply about the chances for other formerly oppressed nations to become free, democratic and prosperous?
Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) has been among those astute enough to notice and be troubled by developments in Russia. He has described what is taking place there as nothing less than “a creeping coup against the forces of democracy and market capitalism.”
He added: “The United States cannot enjoy a normal relationship, much less a partnership, with a country that increasingly appears to have more in common with its Soviet and czarist predecessors than with the modern state Vladimir Putin claims to aspire to build.”
Mr. Putin, of course, is Russia's president, up for re-election on Sunday (March 14). There is little suspense about the outcome of that contest. Recent polls indicate that the incumbent will receive up to 80 percent of the vote. None of his five challengers is projected to garner more than six percent.
You might think that such numbers would have given Mr. Putin the confidence to encourage more democracy, more competition, more freedom and additional human rights protections. Sadly, that has not been the case.
According to a State Department report issued last month, Mr. Putin's government has been threatening members of opposition groups, manipulating the media, placing polling organizations under Kremlin control, and harassing businessmen.
Arbitrary arrests have become common. Conditions in prison are “frequently life-threatening.”
More specifically, “parliamentary elections held on December 7 failed to meet international standards. … There were credible reports that law enforcement personnel frequently engaged in torture.” All the major television stations not owned by the government have been eliminated. “Trafficking in persons, particularly women and girls, was a serious problem.”
In addition: “There were a number of killings of government officials throughout the country, some of which may have been politically motivated.”
Sen. McCain has been particularly concerned about the arrest, last October, of Russia's leading capitalist, oil magnate and philanthropist Mikhail Khordorkovsky.
Mr. Khordorkovsky, the Senator said, “had committed what in the Kremlin's eyes is the worst crime of all: supporting the political opposition to President Putin. …Khordorkovsky actually attempted to exercise basic political freedoms guaranteed, in theory, for all Russians.”
Based on these and other concerns, Sen. McCain has joined with Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-CONN) to introduce legislation urging the Bush administration to suspend Russia's membership in the prestigious Group of Eight (G-8) industrialized democracies “until the Russian government ends its assault on political freedom, independent media, and the rule of law, and demonstrates its commitment to the democratic principles that unite all other members of the G-8.”
Sen. Lieberman believes that such leverage is required to “get Russia back on the democratic track. To allow Russia to remain a member as it continues to suppress political opposition parties and silence free and independent media would make a mockery of the democratic principles that bind the G-8 together.”
The next meeting of the G-8 will be in June in Sea Island, Georgia. At that time and place, President Bush is to formally launch his “Forward Strategy of Freedom in the Middle East.” This is an important initiative, an antidote for the ideologies that spawn hatred and terror. It will be more persuasive if all those standing on the stage with Mr. Bush represent free and democratic nations.