Like many other people, I wondered what happened to all of the communists after the collapse of the Soviet Union 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 the eyes of Russian President Vladimir Putin at their first meeting and confidently told the world that 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," Bush declared after their 2001 visit.
Last month, 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, Rep. Chris Cox, California Republican, and Rep. Tom Lantos, California Democrat and the ranking Democratic member on the International Relations Committee. Both men co-chair the Russia Democracy Caucus.
In a rare display of bipartisanship, once characteristic of the way American politicians handled foreign policy issues, Cox and Lantos have introduced a bill that urges the president to suspend Russia's membership in the Group of 8 nations (G-8) until it adheres to international norms and standards of democracy.
In a joint statement, 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."
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." Lantos added that 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."
Lantos said that Russia has continued to court global opinion for its support of anti-terrorism efforts, while simultaneously dodging criticism for its shoddy human rights record. He specifically mentioned the postponement of the corruption trial of oil executive Mikhail Khodorkovsky, which was originally scheduled to begin at the end of April, but which has now been postponed until after President Bush's Moscow visit next week.
The president will have to decide how tough a stance to take with Putin, but he should express American displeasure with the progress, or more accurately, the lack of progress towards a free and democratic Russia. It is one thing to stumble along the way to democracy. It is something else again to walk backward toward the old totalitarian ways that kept Russians in their grip for most of the 20th century.
The president has more than Lantos and Cox wanting to confront Putin. A similar measure has been introduced in the Senate by John McCain, Arizona Republican, and Joseph Lieberman, Connecticut Democrat. If the president doesn't send a strong message, these men have.
President Bush might wish to take a second look into Putin's soul to see if he really is a born again democrat, or if something darker occupies that inner space.