President Bush has now had his long-awaited private chat about Russian democracy with Vladimir Putin, followed by their awkward, grin-and-bear-it news conference. But a larger question nags: Can the United States really do anything to promote democracy in Russia?
Ask experts and officials about this, and you'll hear many sensible but incomplete answers. One is that, having raised the issue, the president has to keep talking about it until he sees results. (Very true: Otherwise Putin will think Bush is just grandstanding for a home audience.)
Another suggestion is that the United States find something the Russian government wants more than we do and link it to democratic reforms. (Also a good point: The administration might ask itself whether Russia's desire to join the World Trade Organization offers useful leverage.)
A third proposal is to give more help to Russians who are building the "infrastructure" of democracy -- journalist groups, election monitors and others. (Right, so why does Bush's budget proposal curtail such assistance? Didn't his budget office hear the inaugural address?)
No matter how many good ideas we come up with, we have to be realistic about their impact. Russia's weak democratic traditions have allowed Putin to neutralize those who seek to limit the arbitrary exercise of state power and strengthen the rule of law. He is not likely to change course just because outsiders grouse about the lack of checks and balances. He will remind them of Bush's statement that such an effort is the "work of generations" -- and invite them to call back in 30 or 40 years.
As they think about the evolution of democracy in post-communist societies, American experts and officials usually have in mind a long to-do list -- ensuring the rule of law, a free press, minority rights and so forth. Bush mentioned all these goals during his news conference with Putin last week. Yet the big political breakthroughs we've seen in recent years have not revolved around these issues. In Georgia and Ukraine, opponents of the regime, though unhappy about many things, had a different overriding demand: free and fair elections.
There is a lesson here for President Bush. Without forgetting his long list, he needs a short one, too. In fact, there should be only one item on it: Russia's presidential election in 2008. No other event is likely to have as large an impact on the course of Russian democracy -- and no other commitment that Putin makes will be as easy to monitor.
Under the Russian constitution, Putin cannot run for a third term, which leaves him and his entourage two choices: rewrite the constitution or try to put one of their own in the top job, just as Leonid Kuchma sought to install Viktor Yanukovych as president of Ukraine. For this reason, Western policymakers need to send Putin the same message they sent Kuchma for two years before Ukraine's election: A fraudulent vote will taint Russia's international standing for years to come.
Rather than make the 2008 election a litmus test of Russian democracy, some Western policymakers will prefer to stick to generic, and less confrontational, urgings about civil society and the rule of law. Without progress in these areas, they'll say, elections won't matter much anyway. They'll also argue that Putin, unlike Kuchma, is so popular he can probably get his own man elected fairly. If so, why focus on a contest that won't really strengthen democracy?
These concerns misread post-communist political dynamics. Slow, incremental transformations do prepare the ground, but it has been dramatic turning points -- crises, in a word -- that have produced the most important democratic results. In Ukraine, the rigged vote in November forced judges to decide whether they were finally ready to act independently; until then, they had been toadies. The corruption, brutality and incompetence of the Kuchma regime had demoralized many members of the elite, but only the election drove them into opposition.
Russia will not repeat this experience exactly, but a real election will nevertheless subject Putin's regime to a severe test, particularly if his candidate seems uncertain of victory. Despite his popularity, Putin has had trouble transferring his appeal to others. United Russia, the political machine that he created to control parliament and regional bureaucrats, was touted not so long ago as Russia's permanent ruling party. Today it is crashing in the polls. If doubts about its viability grow, political competition will open up again. Other elements of the fractious, Yeltsin-era democracy that Putin scorns -- such as media pluralism -- will also be reborn.
Western leaders may find it difficult to say outright to Putin that if he rigs the election of a crony as his successor or rewrites the constitution to make himself president for life, they'll consider him no better than the Central Asian autocrats who do such things. But if they don't say so, and mean it, they'll be passing up the most significant contribution they can make to Russian democracy.
The writer is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and a professor of international diplomacy at Columbia University. He was U.S. ambassador at large for the former Soviet Union from 1997 to 2001.