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Russia faces a long road ahead

<em>NBC  News’ Washington bureau chief and host of "Meet the Press" offers insight and analysis into politics past, present and future.</em></p>

MSNBC:  Tim, President George W. Bush is back home now after his big tour of Europe.  Was it a successful one?

Russert:  Well, certainly with the Europeans the dialogue is back, after the disruption with the war in Iraq. 

The key there now is will the Europeans come forward and provide some economic aid for Iraq and train some troops.  But once people are talking, a whole lot of things get easier.

With Vladimir Putin, that was a very delicate balance.  Because the president had said so many complimentary things about Mr. Putin — about his soul, about being a good guy, about being honest, about being in the foxhole with him and so forth.  Friday, at their news conference, you saw on display two very different views about democracy and freedom.

I thought Mr. Putin and the so-call Russian journalists, were trying to put the U.S. on trial, rather than have Mr. Putin answer for his undemocratic actions. 

It was a quite revealing news conference.

MSNBC: Corruption has had a terrible effect on the Russian economy and the economy is so key to getting people to buy into democracy. What’s happened in Russia? 

Russert: Well, Mr. Putin has attempted to “centralize his power.”  He’s made the Duma — the parliament — practically irrelevant.  He’s closed down the media in many instances and shut down some businesses as well.  There are more former KGB agents in the government than any time in Russian or Soviet history.

Putin has decided that in order to "get control" of the country, he has to take these rather drastic steps.

MSNBC:  Mr. Putin received monetary help from the United States and a lot of European countries when times were tough for Russia.  Isn’t that enough to at least ensure a continued healthy dialogue?  That seems to have been forgotten very easily. What does he get out of his actions?

Russert: That’s a great question. He clearly was after the power and wanted to protect his own presidency.  But the sacrifice is enormous, because people don’t want to invest in a country that they’re uncertain about in terms of its political and economic

I think what President Bush was trying to say was, “Vladimir, if you want your country to grow and prosper, you’ve got to loosen the reins a bit.”

MSNBC:  Is there a carrot-and-stick deal here?  Russia does desperately want to get into the World Trade Organization, but to do so, it almost has to have United States approval.

Russert:  They sure do.  And here’s the problem.  They’re in now in the G-8, the group of eight industrial nations, and Sen. John McCain, R-AZ, and others are saying, “Why should we let them stay in the G-8 if they’re going to behave in an undemocratic way.”

This is going to be a long road for Russia. The world needs its help in fighting terrorism. The world needs its help in gathering nuclear material that’s left over from the Soviet days. But at the same time, the world has to see some progress on the democratic front.

MSNBC:  You’d think Putin would see the benefits of trade arrangements with big economic powerhouses around the world — how it's good for his country.

Russert:  Absolutely.  All he has to do is allow his people to have the basic freedoms and rights that we all have as human beings.

MSNBC:  Who will we see Sunday on Meet the Press?

Russert:  We’re going to have a good, robust debate about Russia, Iraq and Social Security with Delaware Democratic Senator Joe Biden and Pennsylvania Republican Senator Rick Santorum.  And wait until you hear this roundtable.  For the first time ever, William Safire, Maureen Dowd and Tom Freidman of the New York Times – the Murderers Row of the Times op-ed page!

All Sunday, on Meet the Press.