Reporter's Notebook: Summit? What Summit?

Dana Lewis

When two presidents who control the vast majority of the world's nuclear stockpiles get together, it's called "a summit." Well, at least it used to be when the headliners were Presidents Gorbachev and Reagan, or Clinton and Yeltsin. That's because there was a lot riding on those little "get togethers," and everyone knew it because those missiles were pointed at places like New York and Chicago and Washington.

So what's changed? Well for one thing the U.S. has been pushing, and has now achieved, a name change. When President Bush and President Putin meet this week it will very intentionally be called "a meeting," not a summit. I asked a U.S. diplomat to explain that to me last week and was told "Dana, you have to understand that if Russia is really a normal country now we should have normal meetings, not these high stakes summits with grand signings of arms reduction accords and the like."

He denied it is a reflection of low expectations of what will be accomplished between Bush and Putin, but that, in fact, is the real point of calling it "just a meeting."

Is Russia a normal country?

Well that same diplomat then talked for 20 minutes about how Russia is "sliding backwards" and the "ever greater gap in common interests between America and Russia," to use his words.

Since the fall of Communism and the so-called democratization of Russia some 15 years ago, some Russians seem to view the limited experiment with American-style democracy as a failure. Some might argue that, but that's what I have heard at many different levels of government here.

It is explained like this: Western-style freedom of the press was a failure because the big-money oligarchs bought off the press to achieve their own financial and political aims. "It wasn't really free at all," said one Kremlin official, who predicted over coffee some four years ago that "freedom of the press would soon end." He was stunningly correct. It did as the Kremlin took over the main TV channels and newspapers, and now editors report daily phone calls from the Kremlin telling them what is going to be reported and how.

I watched in Beslan, Russia, the scene of the terrible school hostage taking and shootout, a Russian TV reporter throw up her hands in exasperation because she was being told by Moscow what she could say on air, even though she was at the scene. She was told, "Just repeat what the anchorman says in his intro to you, no more." Of course one of those things was that there were only 200 hostages instead of more than a thousand. Kremlin spin control.

The other reason for Putin's so-called "vertical control" of the country, or increasingly authoritarian control over press and business and Parliament, is justified by Kremlin officials as an attempt to stop Russia from splitting into pieces. "We need to do this to keep the country together," said one official.

A more cynical view from some of my Russian and American business friends here is that Russian Security Services, namely the old KGB (now called the FSB), is back in the saddle controlling the country like it did 15 years ago. Don't forget, in Putin's other career he was a former KGB Colonel. Those who didn't get in on the great division of post-communist wealth want their piece now.

So where does that leave America and President Bush's inaugural address last month about promoting democracy abroad and confronting "every ruler, every nation" to end tyranny?

There's no question the current administration is feeling frustrated with Putin over his pledge to keep helping Iran's atomic energy program, and over the public arrest and jailing of the head of the Yukos Oil company, who was a political rival to Putin.

I am told by various sources that at the summit President Bush will raise these issues but not push them "too hard." Said my diplomat friend, "We can't tell the Russians what to do." But Washington does want to get the Russian-American relationship back on track.

Bush may tell Putin something like "Look, my friend, there is a growing avalanche of criticism of your country back in the U.S. Help me help you."

Over breakfast at Moscow's Pushkin café, Andrew Kuchins, head of the Carnegie Institute here, told me, "We have already gone from partnership to cold peace" with the Russians. Regarding questions like G8 expulsion and tougher actions with Moscow he said "At some point the way this is going we reach a tipping point; we're not there yet." Kuchins says if Bush doesn't push his "liberty doctrine" there is a danger, but it's equally as dangerous if he pushes too hard because we could see a hardening of the Putin administration, which could take even more measures to clamp down.

Bush may be put to his greatest diplomatic challenge in that two and a half hour session in Slovakia with Putin — to convince him he has to move forward on democracy, but not let the conversation get so bogged down in the issue that the meeting melts down.

Just a meeting? Sure that's what it's being called because they won't sign any major agreements except for a deal to limit sales of a favorite terrorist weapon — shoulder-fired anti-aircraft weapons.

What will historians write about this meeting ten years from now? It may be a turning point in Russian-American relations for years to come. A gained or lost opportunity to move Russia back on track to becoming a Western-style democracy or a regime that becomes increasingly isolated and at odds with Western values.

It will be some meeting — maybe they should have called it a summit after all.