Putin-Bush partnership durable

A smashing victory for Vladimir Putin's party in Russia's parliamentary elections this Sunday over a suppressed opposition might embarrass President Bush a bit, considering their advertised closeness and mutual trust.

And if there is an overwhelming landslide for Putin's United Russia party, it could pave the way for the Russian president, whose second consecutive term ends in May, to try to control his succession.

But on some important fronts, like promoting Arab-Israeli peacemaking and trying to deter Iran from making nuclear weapons, U.S. and Russian interests appear to coincide, however heavy-handed Putin and a hand-picked successor might rule.

"The United States has an interest in the health of democracy, and unfortunately it is not developing as we would like in Russia," said former U.S. diplomat James Dobbins, who is with the Rand Corp., a think tank. "However, we have many interests in our relationship which we will pursue after this election, in many instances quite successfully."

"I don't expect a significant change in Russian foreign policy," said Andrew Kuchins, head of the Russia and Eurasian program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "Their interests can coincide with ours."

Citing Iran, the Middle East and North Korea, Kuchins said in an interview, " Russia makes decisions on national interests, which is not necessarily correlated with whether it is a democracy or an authoritarian state."

Bush has pursued friendship with Putin as an ally against terrorism from the outset. "Sometimes he says things I don't want to hear, but I know he's always telling me the truth," Bush said last July at summit meeting in Maine.

The president has been slow to criticize Putin publicly, but the White House this week released a statement in Bush's name expressing deep concern about the detention of numerous human rights activists and political leaders who participated in peaceful rallies.

"The freedom of expression, assembly and press, as well as due process, are fundamental to any democratic society," the statement said. "I am hopeful that the government of Russia will honor its international obligations in these areas ...."

At a conference Thursday in Madrid, Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns accused Russia of working to weaken the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and its election-monitoring mission.

"We fear that the fundamental understanding of how to achieve democratic peace in Europe has been under assault from within this organization," Burns said as the OSCE accused Russia of delay in issuing visas for election monitors and sending out too few invitations.

The outcome of Sunday's elections are already clear, said Peter Rodman, who was a senior Pentagon official in the Bush administration. "It is going to strengthen Putin and the present government," Rodman said in an interview. "And we already have problems with them."

Now a senior foreign policy fellow at the Brookings Institution, Rodman said Putin's government has been bullying Ukraine and Georgia, pressuring Estonia, arming the Chinese and trying to squeeze the United States out of central Asia.

He also cited Russia's objection to an administration plan to install an anti-missile defense system in the Czech Republic and Poland.

And yet, he said, "the only reasonable American policy is to see if we can try to do business on some of these issues."

Ariel Cohen, the senior Russia expert at the Heritage Foundation, said that Russia is retreating from democratic values that many thought Russia had embraced after the collapse of communism.

Because the election is being conducted, he said, "in the atmosphere of searching for enemies at home and abroad, questions then arise regarding Russia's reliability as a foreign policy partner of the United States."

And, Cohen said in an interview, "this is especially crucial as the Iranian nuclear issue dominates the international agenda."

"On the one hand you have retreat from democracy," he said, "but you still have Russia as an indispensable partner of the U.S., no matter what." ( AP )

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