Putin Problem?

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President Bush's trip to Moscow as part of an observance marking the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II gives him an opportunity to confront his friend, President Vladimir Putin (search), on the slow pace of democracy in Russia.

Putin was widely reported to have said recently that the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 was "the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century."

That statement got the attention of two California congressmen: Republican Chris Cox and Democrat Tom Lantos.

They fired off a letter to Putin, which said that 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.

Cox and Lantos seemed to link democratic progress with the economic benefits Russia gets from its membership in the group of eight nations, or G-8. Lantos and Cox are scheduled to be my guests next week to talk about this.

The best road for the Russians to take is the one that leads to real freedom and democracy, not back to where Russia was 60 years ago in the grip of the dictator Josef Stalin and with its gulags full of people who had no rights at all.

President Bush said once that he had looked into the eyes of Vladimir Putin and that he was able to get a sense of the Russian president's soul. He said Putin was committed to the best interests of his country.

On this trip the president will have another chance to soul-search and to see if Putin's soul has become darker. Let's hope Putin can be made to see the light of freedom for his people and for other nations with which Russia has relations.

And that's Column One for this week.

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