- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 14, 2006

If Westerners worried that Russian President Vladimir Putin would escalate the stinging war of words with the Bush administration, notably the combative Vice President Dick Cheney, they can rest easy. Mr. Putin’s positive and quite constructive approach to the United States, most notably in his annual State of the Nation speech this week, should lessen any fears that Cold War breezes are returning.

Indeed,Mr.Putin stressed in his speech that ColdWarmistakes shouldn’t be repeated and many times he described his plans for “contemporary Russia” and the “modernization of Russia.” He focused on three local issues — energy, education and health service — that will be worldwide priorities at the July Group of Eight (G8) summit, which he will host.

In many respects, the Russian president’s address sounded like practically any contemporary State of the Union Address by an American president. He talked of the need for strong economic progress, of economic freedom, of equal conditions for competition, of a responsible economic policy and of financial stability to encourage entrepreneurs. He sounded surprisingly like Ronald Reagan.

Mr. Putin acknowledged that much of the technological equipment used by Russian industry lags “not just years but decades behind the most advanced technology the world can offer.” Russia, he said, “must take serious measures to encourage investment in production infrastructure and innovative development while at the same time maintaining the financial stability we have achieved.”

Unquestionably,we should always be skeptical of past adversaries. That’s human nature. But this is not the rhetoric of a saber-rattler, a Cold War-era leader bent on stirring up another battle with the West to raise his stature at home and on the world stage. Unlike Russian leaders before him, Mr. Putin didn’t take the bait that the vice president tossed out last week when Mr. Cheney accused Moscow of backsliding on democracy. Mr. Putin did not ignite another firestorm of invective.

Indeed, in his speech, the Russian leader was as mindful of the threats of terrorism from elsewhere as any major leader. He contended that the rest of the world isn’t considering seriously enough terrorism and the proliferation of nuclear weapons. And he identified plans for Russia to deter potential terrorist attacks.

While the West again may want to paint Russia as bad, it is as plain as the clearest Russian vodka to me that Russia is making real progress in its long journey away from Soviet times. Am I naive, or even blind? Assuredly not. I know firsthand of this transformation. In 1975, I got in big trouble with Soviet authorities for publicly criticizing their foreign and domestic policies and I now spend a lot of time in Moscow running the American University in Moscow, the first private school in Russia, founded in 1990.

Does Russia have more to do in terms of democracy building? Of course. But far from falling into old habits, the Russia of today has a freedom unimaginable in Soviet times and stability unimaginable in the Yeltsin era.

To truly grasp the changes underway in today’s Russia, you need only have heard a brief passage in Mr. Putin’s State of the Nation address, in which he talked of the challenges he has faced: “Working on this great national program that aims at providing basic comforts for the broad masses, we have indeed trodden on some corns, and we will continue to do so. But these are the corns of those who attempt to gain position or wealth, or even both, by taking shortcuts — at the expense of the common good.”

Those were fine words — but they weren’t Mr. Putin’s. He was quoting Franklin D. Roosevelt, who spoke them as president in 1934. Now if that isn’t a symbol and signal of change in Russia, Vice President Cheney, I don’t know what is!

Edward D. Lozansky, a nuclear physicist by training, is president of the American University in Moscow and founder of the World Russian Forum.

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