Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Talking to Russia and Central Asia 

The New York Times is accusing Dick Cheney of improper scolding of Vladimir Putin.
Straight from Lithuania, Mr. Cheney traveled to oil-rich Kazakhstan to make nice to President Nursultan Nazarbayev, a leader with an awful human-rights record whose recent re-election was fraudulent. President George Bush recently received a similar autocrat, President Ilham Aliyev of oil-rich Azerbaijan, in the White House. Given the global scramble for energy, there's an obvious self-interest for Washington in courting these secular leaders of Muslim nations. But spearing Russia while flirting with its even more undemocratic neighbors confuses the message, especially when done by a vice president identified with oil interests.

The Times misunderstands the drastic demise of democracy in Russia. Its Freedom House score for freedom is identical to both Kazakhstan's and Azerbaijan's. And while the US has little hope of influencing in the short run the course of democracy in Russia -- what with all the oil money they're awash with -- there's still time for the other two places, where civic life may have expanded during recent elections enough to provide an entry point into making reforms real.

Moreover, the point of the trips to these two countries has to do with oil in a different way -- defusing Russia's monopoly on shipping from Central Asia. And both countries sit front and center in the growing hostilities between Washington and Tehran, and they have reasons for concern. Talking with them makes more sense than throwing stones, and unlike Russia, they may not have oil rushing through their ears making them deaf.