The Truth About Putin

Considering that she is a marginal challenger to a powerful Russian president embraced by President George W. Bush, Irina Khakamada got quite a reception during a 36-hour visit to Washington last week.

The congressional Russian democracy caucus, chaired by Representative Chris Smith, held an open meeting with her. Senator John McCain received her. Senior State Department officials and think tanks of both the right and left consulted her. At the White House, Condoleezza Rice, architect of Bush's special relationship with Vladimir Putin, dropped in to see the tall and tough liberal democrat who has mounted a lonely campaign to oppose Putin's upcoming re-election in March -- and his consolidation of authoritarian power.

Khakamada explained to Rice why she had chosen to enter a race in which Putin's landslide victory is preordained and in which her own place on the ballot -- not to mention state-controlled television -- is subject to the Kremlin's whim. One of her aims, she says, is to educate the outside world about what has happened to democracy in Russia. Another is familiar from Russia's totalitarian history: to offer a model of someone not afraid to speak up about a ruler's abuse of power.

The response, she says, was surprisingly sympathetic -- and suggestive of a partial but real shift of attitude toward Putin. "I have noticed that the spirit in Washington has changed somewhat," she said. "What I hear from Congress and the State Department is somewhat different from what we've witnessed when the two presidents have gotten together, which has been idyllic."

Khakamada connects the change in Washington to December's State Duma elections, in which her party -- the liberal Union of Right Forces -- lost almost all its seats after elections condemned by the State Department as unfair. But the administration's shift of attitude can be traced back at least several weeks earlier, to a meeting in London on Nov. 20 among Bush, Rice, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell and British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

Powell, sources say, raised the issue of Russia, saying that Putin's increasing authoritarianism was a serious problem. Rice responded with some mitigating context: Russia's long history of authoritarian rule, the considerable differences between Putin's Russia and the Soviet Union, the need to do business with Moscow. But Blair said that while the context was important, Putin's behavior was indeed a problem -- and Bush agreed with him.

Since then Powell has been methodically pushing the envelope of the administration's new willingness to publicly criticize Putin. Less than two weeks after the London meeting, he chastised Putin at a diplomatic conference in Europe for failing to meet treaty commitments for the withdrawal of troops from Georgia and Moldova. There followed his spokesman's condemnation of the elections. Last week, Powell published an article -- approved in advance by the White House -- in Izvestia that took Putin to task on democracy, relations with neighbors and the war in Chechnya. It warned that "without basic principles shared in common, our relationship will not achieve its potential."

It's not yet clear whether Powell's pronouncements will be followed by substantive changes in policy -- or even echoed publicly by the White House. Rice remains cautious about any confrontation with Putin; the administration is still hoping for his help on a range of issues, including a democracy charter for the Middle East that the president may unveil at the G-8 summit of rich democratic nations this spring.

The idea, floated by McCain, that Russia -- which is neither rich nor democratic -- should be expelled from the G-8 group has been dismissed inside the administration. Nor is Bush prepared to cut aid programs seen to be in the U.S. interest, such as those that help dispose of Russian nuclear weapons material. The president himself has yet to say a critical word about Putin in public.

Should Bush decide to stand up to Moscow's new strongman -- hasn't he made several speeches about defending "freedom"? -- Khakamada has some suggestions. "Putin needs to be pressed to spell out what kind of a political course he is mapping out for the next four years," she says. "Lip service to certain principles isn't enough; we need to know what real actions he has in mind. Rather than talk about democracy and human rights in Russia, focus on the specifics of what Putin says he will do and what he is really doing." Western governments, she says, also must keep supporting Russia's civil society -- free media, labor unions, independent social organizations.

Above all Bush would do well simply to imitate Khakamada -- to be bold enough to speak the truth about Putin. It might make his friend angry -- but it would also offer the world an example.

Jackson Diehl is a columnist for The Washington Post, where this comment first appeared.