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St. Putinburg

The visit of 50 foreign leaders to St. Petersburg this weekend to celebrate the city's 300th anniversary comes at an appropriate moment. For this beautiful, historic, and tragic city symbolizes the political situation of its native son, Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Behind St. Petersburg's newly painted and glittering facades lie crumbling communal apartments, a dormant economy, and mafia-like corruption.

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Behind the facade of Mr. Putin as the president firmly in charge is a man struggling to maintain control of competing interests ranging from reformers to recalcitrant regional leaders to robber barons.

That competition is illustrated by the rivalry between St. Petersburg, the old imperial capital, and Moscow, the capital before 1703 and since 1918. The rivalry symbolizes the tension between those, like Putin, who see Russia's future as tied to the West, and "third Rome" nationalists devoted to the myth that Russia can exist in isolation and develop a political and economic model separate from both totalitarian communism and liberal market democracy.

Putin's opposition to the Iraq war showed that dynamic at work. Millions of Russians have not accepted the idea that Russia is no longer a superpower, able to checkmate the United States. Putin understands this, but can't be seen admitting it. So he aligned himself with France and Germany over Iraq on the grounds he was upholding the principle of a multilateral world order and opposing US "unilateralism." That was a facade, too: His underlying motive was protecting Russia's billions of dollars of investment in Iraq's oil industry.

But unlike President Jacques Chirac and Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, Putin appears to be paying little for breaking with the US. Not only did he strengthen ties with Paris and Berlin, he has apparently now obtained President Bush's forgiveness. The sight of the American president and all those other leaders coming to "Piter" to pay tribute to Russian history, culture, and "power" should be soothing balm for the Russian psyche and give Putin a mighty political boost.

He needs one. Facing parliamentary elections this fall and presidential elections next year, Putin has his hands full. Corrupt ministers, powerful oligarchs, obstinate regional leaders, and a quagmire in Chechnya obstruct his efforts at modernization and reform. The secret-police cronies he appointed as allies have trampled on civil rights and damaged Russia's image abroad, tossing out foreign workers, from Roman Catholic bishops to American Peace Corps volunteers. Reform sits stalled, leaving the economy in limbo between total state control and a free market under the rule of law.

So Mr. Bush is right to cut Putin some slack. The Russian leader may need a good deal more of it over the next year. For all his flaws, he's the most viable representative of the Russian elite most friendly to the West and democracy.

The future of Russia lies in the spirit of St. Petersburg. The US and Europe must help Putin keep that spirit alive.


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