Old Saint Basil's Cathedral in MoscowJohnson's Russia List title and scenes of Saint Petersburg
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#3 - JRL 7241
New York Times
June 26, 2003
Keeping Vladimir Putin on Track

The royal reception for President Vladimir Putin in Britain coincided neatly with the spectacular launch of the latest Harry Potter saga. The world loves a fairy tale, whether it be about an abused kid who turns into a heroic wizard, or a spook who becomes president and gets treated like a king. This is fine. Mr. Putin and Russia need all the relief they can get. But the key is to make sure that carriage ride with Queen Elizabeth is not a free ride. It's also a chance to talk to the Russian president about Iran's nuclear program, about the latest television station he closed down, about North Korea, about what's happening inside Russia.

Britain is right to give Mr. Putin the royal treatment. This is the Mr. Putin the West likes to see, the one President Bush and 54 other leaders went to visit recently in a regally restored St. Petersburg a sober, Westernizing leader who is prepared to cooperate with the United States and Europe and who has brought relative stability to his country. Both Washington and London have been prepared to forgive him his opposition to the invasion of Iraq, in part because he kept it reasonably low-key, and in greater part because he is a man they feel they can deal with. Indeed, Mr. Putin has done a lot to end the chaos of the Yeltsin years, and for this he has garnered deserved popularity at home. Bringing on the Grenadier Guards in their plumed helmets is a reasonable price to keep Mr. Putin on message.

The photo-ops sure help Mr. Putin. His countrymen still love to see their foundering country treated as an empire, and Mr. Putin faces a difficult parliamentary election in Russia this year in which his treatment by the West will be a central issue.

So all that pomp is fine, so long as nobody forgets that the Kremlin pulled the plug this week on Russia's last independent television channel, or that a lot of people are still dying in Chechnya, or that for all of Mr. Putin's declarations, Russians are still involved in Iran's nuclear program. There's a lot more the Kremlin could do abroad to dissuade North Korea from its nuclear blackmail.

There's a lot more Mr. Putin must do at home, too. Businessmen and officials are still being assassinated in the streets, endemic corruption and a feeble rule of law choke new businesses, and there's a worrisome number of Mr. Putin's former K.G.B. comrades in high places. It is proper to encourage Mr. Putin. But it is equally important not to look the other way when he gets off the track.

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