Russia's slide into authoritarianism must be challenged

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The most difficult meeting of George Bush's four-day fence-mending mission to Europe promises to be in Bratislava tomorrow, when the American and Russian presidents sit down for a two-hour mini-summit.

The most difficult meeting of George Bush's four-day fence-mending mission to Europe promises to be in Bratislava tomorrow, when the American and Russian presidents sit down for a two-hour mini-summit.

Messrs Bush and Putin have until now enjoyed a warm personal connection, reinforced by common ground in the "war on terror". But the US President foreshadowed an unexpectedly frank encounter in Slovakia when, in a speech on Monday, he used his toughest language yet to warn Moscow to renew a commitment to democracy and the rule of law.

It will be disappointing if Mr Bush does not follow up these words by challenging Mr Putin face to face, to halt Russia's slide into authoritarianism. From a Kremlin now staffed by former KGB associates, Mr Putin has overseen an alarming assault on Russia's democratic and political freedoms. He has jailed his opponents or forced them into exile. He has orchestrated an ominous clampdown on the media to silence dissent, while ending the direct election of regional governors to choose his own puppet appointees. Mr Putin's backing of the original winner of the discredited Ukrainian election is further cause for disquiet.

If Mr Bush's sweeping inaugural promise to spread freedom and democracy around the world is not a sham, then he must surely apply it to Russia. In effect, tomorrow's meeting will the first test of the new Bush doctrine of ending "tyranny" and confronting every ruler about internal repression.

Of course, criticising Russia's democratic retreat dovetails conveniently with current US priorities. Moscow has set itself squarely against the White House on Iran, and is irking Washington with its arms sales to Syria. And Mr Bush is under mounting pressure from Congress over the threat to business interests posed by Russia's seizure of privatised energy companies.

But none of this invalidates his criticisms. Nor does it excuse those EU leaders, including Tony Blair, who have been shamefully silent on Russia's rollback of democratic reforms. They should not need Mr Bush to tell them that they must place the rule of law at the heart of any dialogue with Mr Putin.

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