- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 5, 2005

Like many other people, I wondered what happened to all the communists after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. Did they experience an instantaneous conversion to free-market capitalism and a democratic way of life, trial by jury and other Western principles, or did they go underground, awaiting their return to power like die-hard Confederates in America who defiantly vowed, “The South shall rise again”?

During the 1990s, no one seemed to care. The “victory over communism” celebration would last the decade and many believed (with the notable exception of China) that humankind’s last adversary had been thrown onto “the ash heap of history,” as Ronald Reagan had prophesied.

As with Islamic terrorists, premature judgments about evil and its numerous incarnations can be hazardous to one’s interests, even one’s life.

President Bush looked into Russian President Vladimir Putin’s eyes at their first meeting and confidently told the world the former KGB officer was someone who had a soul, because the president had seen it. “I was able to get a sense of his soul, a man deeply committed to his country and the best interests of his country,” Mr. Bush declared after their 2001 visit.

Last month, Mr. Putin was widely reported to have described the collapse of the Soviet Union as “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century.” This got the attention of at least two influential members of the House of Representatives, Reps. Chris Cox, California Republican, and Tom Lantos of California, ranking Democrat on the House International Relations Committee. The two co-chair the Russia Democracy Caucus.

In a rare display of bipartisanship, once characteristic of how American politicians handled foreign policy issues, Mr. Cox and Mr. Lantos have introduced a bill urging the president to suspend Russia’s Group of 8 nations (G-8) membership until it adheres to international norms and standards of democracy.

Mr. Cox said, “Russia has failed to complete a successful transition from communism to free enterprise, and from a Soviet police state to a stable, securely democratic society. Vladimir Putin needs to show that his nation belongs in the same league with the other G-7 members.”

Mr. Lantos said, “The major industrialized democracies gave Russia a seat at the table after the Cold War’s end, expecting that Russia’s newfound respect for human rights, the rule of law and free expression would persist.” Mr. Lantos added Russia had “tossed aside this historic opportunity [and] Russia’s leaders are making a mockery of the G-8 by failing to live up to the basic norms of a democratic society, and shifting the blame for their crackdown on basic rights.”

Mr. Lantos said Russia has continued courting global opinion for its support of anti-terrorism efforts, while simultaneously dodging criticism for its shoddy human-rights record. He specifically mentioned the postponed corruption trial of oil executive Mikhail Khodorkovsky, originally scheduled to begin at the end of April but which has now been put off until after President Bush’s Moscow visit next week.

Mr. Bush must decide how tough to be with Mr. Putin, but he should express American displeasure with the progress, or more accurately, the lack of progress, toward a free and democratic Russia. It is one thing to stumble along the way to democracy. It is something else to walk back toward the old totalitarian ways that gripped Russian for most of the 20th century.

Cal Thomas is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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