If there was a reason to worry this past weekend, it was the election over constitutional reforms in Venezuela that could have rendered President Hugo Chavez president for life.

Venezuelans narrowly defeated the measure, which would have let Chavez handpick local leaders under a redrawn political map, suspend civil liberties during extended states of emergency and create new types of communal property. Chavez said his respect for the outcome was the mark of a true democratic leader. Then he called for calm. Chavez, of course, remains in power until at least 2012, which may explain his magnanimity. This means he will control one of the world's largest supplies of oil for at least five more years. We can safely assume that Chavez has not yet given up on constitutional reforms.

If the outcome of the election had been different, this column would be taking a different tack. We have to take Chavez at his word that he will respect the vote, which appears to have been conducted fairly.

If only the same could be said for Russia, where the ruling pro-Kremlin United Russia party won a two-thirds majority in Sunday's elections for the state Duma.

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and the Council of Europe said in a joint statement that Sunday's poll "was not fair and failed to meet many OSCE and Council of Europe commitments and standards for democratic elections."

In the run-up to the elections, OSCE officials charged that Russia's new election law created unequal conditions for smaller political parties, thus the elections could not be considered fair. Only three other parties captured 7 percent of the vote or more, which gave them entry to the state Duma, Russia's lower house of parliament. The previous threshold was 5 percent.

This essentially means that Russians will have more of the same when Vladimir Putin's nominee for president runs. The candidate has not yet been announced, but a win is almost assured.

Meanwhile, once Putin leaves office, he would appear well on his way to becoming Russia's parliamentary leader, which means he could block any decision he doesn't like.

Sounds an awful lot like overcentralization of government to me. It's particularly troubling as one considers how Russia sometimes treats former Soviet states and a troubling lack of democracy within the country itself, with respect to an "independent" judiciary and a "free" press.

But it must also be acknowledged that the United States' relationship with Russia is more complicated than ever. Russia is a powerful ally in the war on terror through intelligence sharing and anti-terrorism activities. Both nations have been victims of terrorist acts, and both recognize the power of their combined resources. Russia also is a key partner in nuclear nonproliferation talks with North Korea and Iran.

Still, there can be no winking and nodding at policies that restrict individual liberties within Russia. Nor can the United States stand back and allow Russia to bully its neighbors, former Soviet states that have fledgling governments themselves.

Some aspects of Russian life provide reason for optimism. Thanks to the Internet, the entire world is on "Candid Camera" these days. It is increasingly difficult to withhold personal liberties in an environment where Russians rank among the top 10 worldwide in numbers of Internet users. Add to that Russia's very real need for financial investment in natural resource development and intellectual capital. More trade and investment means more international scrutiny of Russia's government and private sector.

As our nation's history has taught, personal liberties are not available to all at the flick of a switch. But I have to believe, even in the most oppressed places on Earth, all yearn for freedom. We have a special obligation to fan those flames, even when the path to personal liberties and self-determination is not clearly marked.


Marjorie Cortez, who believes the free press, an independent judiciary, and fair and open elections are very much taken for granted in the United States — and shouldn't be, is a Deseret Morning News editorial writer. E-mail her at [email protected]