Bush’s Backtrack

In his statement at the June 5 Prague Conference on Security and Democracy, US President Bush said, “In Russia, reforms that once promised to empower citizens have been derailed, with troubling implications for democratic development.” The next day, in his remarks to the travel pool of reporters, Bush found it necessary to explain his speech. This meant qualifying and contradicting some elements of the speech that might have given offense. Bush’s original remark about Russia was hardly news. To state that Russia’s democratic reforms have been derailed is, at this point, to arrive embarrassingly late to the party. But even this wasn’t too little to apologize for the next day when Other Russia leader Garry Kasparov’s comments were brought up to Bush by a reporter.

Q: Garry Kasparov, who you met with yesterday, has said that Russia is now a police state, and he said the West should stop giving Putin democratic credentials. What do you —

A: THE PRESIDENT: I think there are — as I said yesterday, society has advanced a long way from the old Soviet era. There is a growing middle class, there is prosperity, there’s elections. It’s interesting you would ask the question, do you think he is trying to position himself at home — thereby meaning that he is concerned about public opinion, which is a sign that there is a — when public opinion influences leadership, it is an indication that there is involvement of the people. I think what you’re referring to is the upcoming elections, is he trying to say something about the upcoming elections. I, frankly, haven’t talked to him about that aspect. But if, in fact, he is concerned about the upcoming elections, it does say something about the state of the political scene in Russia.

This remark caused us considerable confusion. The question was about Kasparov’s comments, but Bush’s answer used only pronouns and he seemed to be talking about Putin when he said, “do you think he is trying to position himself at home…” And does he mean it is a good sign that Putin is exploiting his presence at the G7 meetings for propaganda purposes at home while eliminating the democratic institutions the G7 represents? The last sentences about elections we cannot understand at all. If who is concerned? Kasparov or Putin? And what would it say?

But that’s not as bad as the part we do understand. The day before, Bush said that Russia’s democratic reforms had been derailed. Unambiguous. The next day, there’s a growing middle class, prosperity, and elections. Yet again we are told that Russians are far better off than they were in the USSR so they shouldn’t be complaining. Why compare the present to 1977 instead of, say, 1997? Russians under 30 barely have any memory of the Soviet times. Things are getting worse now and that is what matters. The middle class and the prosperity are reserved for a minority located in the major capitals while the standard of living elsewhere declines. The elections have become a meaningless puppet show.

President Bush’s ambitious second inaugural speech was also full of promises of standing up for democracy around the world:

All who live in tyranny and hopelessness can know: the United States will not ignore your oppression, or excuse your oppressors. When you stand for your liberty, we will stand with you. Democratic reformers facing repression, prison, or exile can know: America sees you for who you are: the future leaders of your free country.

The rulers of outlaw regimes can know that we still believe as Abraham Lincoln did: “Those who deny freedom to others deserve it not for themselves; and, under the rule of a just God, cannot long retain it.” The leaders of governments with long habits of control need to know: To serve your people you must learn to trust them. Start on this journey of progress and justice, and America will walk at your side.

Since that day, January 20, 2005, Mr. Bush’s strongest statement about the destruction of democracy and civil rights in Putin’s Russia was that one sentence on June 5 in Prague. We are not so proud as to not count ourselves as “democratic reformers facing repression, prison, or exile.” Stand up for your words, Mr. Bush, and stand up to your friend Vladimir. He’s not your friend any more than he is ours.