In early 2000, I asked a question about Russian President Putin that still reverberates in Moscow. Especially now.
"Who is Mr. Putin?" I queried four top Russian officials, who sat on a stage before 1,000 international businessmen at the Davos World Economic Forum. One after the other, each looked around nervously and refused to answer. Russian TV crews filmed the scene, which was rebroadcast for weeks.
Over the years, "Who is Mr. Putin?" became a mantra repeated by those who sought to fathom the goals and values of this former KGB officer.
After the Kremlin's manipulation of the recent parliamentary elections, which gave Putin a victory so overwhelming that the opposition was virtually demolished, the answer has become clear.
Vladimir Putin is a man who thinks democracy breeds chaos. He wants to reverse the path Russia followed in the 1990s after the breakup of the Soviet Union, when political freedoms were granted before economic reforms had succeeded. He thinks he can rebuild Russia only if he reverts to an era in which the Kremlin has unlimited power.
"What does he need so much power for?" asks Natalya Gevorkyan, a well-known Russian journalist who wrote a biography of Putin. "I think the model is China, a strong centralized system and a one-party state."
Putin calls his version of authoritarian rule "managed democracy." When I visited Moscow shortly after Putin took office, one of his top aides spelled out the Kremlin's goals in an interview.
"Russians have a habit of respect for the center," said Vladislav Surkov, "and we'll take advantage of it." Indeed they did.
Since then, regional governors have been reined in and independent TV stations shut down. TV networks, from which most Russians get their information, now are all state-controlled. In the recent campaign, TV news shamelessly promoted Putin's party while shutting out opposition candidates.
Under Putin -- who is surrounded by ex-KGB colleagues -- freedom of expression has been curbed. Researchers cooperating with foreigners have been charged with treason. The founder and staff of Russia's most reputable polling agency were fired after their poll revealed that support for Putin's war in Chechnya had plummeted.
Russia's richest oil magnate, Mikhail Khodorkovsky was tossed in jail, supposedly for tax infractions, even though other "oligarchs" with shady pasts remain close to the Kremlin. No Russian doubts that he is sitting in prison because he financed opposition parties -- and challenged Putin's primacy.
Should Americans care whether the Chinese model -- economic reform without political freedom -- trumps in Russia? After all, many Russians yearn for order. They view the 1990s, a time of political openness, as an era of chaos when a handful got rich at the expense of ordinary Russians.
I believe we must care if the China model triumphs in Moscow. The Kremlin goes too far, seeks too much power, encourages ugly anti-Muslim and anti-Semitic nationalism. As Mikhail Gorbachev warned, the domination of a single pro-Putin party could lead to a "Soviet Communist-type situation."
Certainly, President Bush claims to care. At a September summit with Putin, Bush expressed his respect (for) President Putin's "vision for Russia ... a country in which democracy and freedom and rule of law thrive." That fulsome praise no doubt reflected Russia's cooperation on terrorism. Putin didn't deserve it; his authoritarian tendencies were clear long before the summit.
But there are limits to what we can do to help Russia's democrats. The Putin saga serves as a caution about the American efforts to install democracy elsewhere. The economic reforms that the United States pressed on Russia in the 1990s boomeranged. They feed today's nationalist anger.
What President Bush can do is refrain from giving Putin a free ride just because they are post-9-11 allies. Putin wants to join Europe, and that goal provides the West with leverage to press for rule of law.
Russia's liberal democrats and businessmen will try again to start independent media and form new political parties. If they are repressed, U.S. officials must complain, in one voice with Europeans.
And U.S. funds for exchanges with Russians -- of high school students, entrepreneurs, journalists -- which build the fabric of the Russian middle class, must be increased, not slashed. It is absurd that such funds are drying up while Bush touts democracy-building in the Middle East.
Many will note President Bush's warm reception this week for Chinese premier Wen Jiabao just as Putin was consolidating power. The overlap is coincidental. But Russians shouldn't be allowed to think America endorses the Chinese model of change.
Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial-board member for the Philadelphia Inquirer.