The American Interest
Policy, Politics & Culture
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Doing Well By Doing Right

Some mythbusting about U.S. policy towards Russia.

Published on February 1, 2012

December 2011 will be remembered as a tumultuous month in Russia, if not a seminal one. Observers both Russian and foreign were surprised by the December 4 Duma election, in which United Russia failed to muster 50 percent of the vote despite significant ballot box stuffing and voter fraud. More importantly, in Moscow, St. Petersburg and dozens of other cities across the country, massive post-election protests caught most people—including Russia’s leadership—completely off-guard. 

Perhaps we should not have been so surprised. For several years, Russia has been stagnating, at least politically, and in turn the political system has degraded and society has become demoralized. Vladimir Putin, representing the antithesis of his predecessor, Boris Yeltsin, raised hopes for many Russians of a more stable and secure future. Indeed, most Russians were ready to close the books on the unhappy, chaotic decade of the 1990s. They longed for stability at home and recovery on the world stage, and Putin got credit for delivering both with the help of the second Chechen war and the soaring price of oil. But as Putin prospered from happenstance during his first two terms as President (2000–08), lately he and his own policies and judgments have suffered from it. The economy is stalled, neo-patrimonial corruption is rife and assaults against human rights and sheer decency are on the rise. Above all, it seems, Putin’s little Potemkin village act with Dmitri Medvedev finally prompted a critical mass of Russians to take umbrage at being manipulated as though they were a bunch of gullible teenagers. When Putin announced on September 24, 2011, that he would reoccupy the presidency in March, according to a deal that had been worked out with Medvedev “several years ago”, that was the last straw. 

After the September announcement but before the December 4 election, Putin was booed by thousands of spectators at a sporting event. Medvedev became the brunt of jokes on the internet and radio and was widely derided for a staged event at Moscow State University. Weeks before the election, polls showed that large numbers of Russian voters were itching for a chance to voice their displeasure with the party in power. On December 4, they scratched the itch, despite efforts by nervous authorities to limit the damage by resorting to old tricks: denying registration to certain opposition parties, perpetrating other administrative abuses and showering disproportionate and favorable media attention on United Russia. Similar efforts during previous Duma and presidential elections were met with general indifference, even a sense of resignation. Not this time, as the most politically dynamic part of the population—the so-called middle class, journalists, the intelligentsia and youth—mobilized as never before. A Levada Center poll of those who attended the massive December 24 protest in Moscow revealed that 73 percent said that they were protesting to “give vent to their indignation over the rigged election” and “accumulated frustration with the state of affairs in the country and the policy promoted by the powers-that-be.”

The protest of Russia’s “angry class” (to describe it as a middle class movement does not fully capture the mood) has permanently punctured the aura of invincibility surrounding Putin and the system he erected. He has lost the support of the two cities crucial for the survival of any politician in Russia—Moscow and St. Petersburg—where, according to independent observers, United Russia secured barely 30 percent of the vote. (Nationwide, according to official results, United Russia obtained 49.3 percent.) Putin’s regime now stands delegitimized in the eyes of the most active and educated part of society. 

Even more important, Russians seem to have rediscovered two crucial components of liberal political and civil life: morality and law. Debauching elections, tolerated for years, is now characterized as being both immoral and contrary to the rule of law (not to speak of its spirit). While large segments of society (between 30 and 45 percent of the electorate) still cling to Putin, his overall base of support is eroding. With the internet and social media now playing a novel, wild-card role in Russian democracy, Putin’s failure to secure victory in the first round of the March presidential election, which is unlikely but not impossible, could touch off a political freefall the bottom of which no one can predict. Even a Putin “victory” could touch off a political storm that could be the beginning of a systemic implosion, undermining his legitimacy for good.

End of Illusions 

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n his final State of the Union address, Medvedev promised the return of elected governors, the liberalization of electoral legislation and easier registration for new parties. Such offers would have been considered revolutionary in 2008, and had he implemented them while President, he would have left office properly deemed a reformer. No one takes these promises seriously now, seeing them for the distracting palliatives they are. Even the removal of Vladislav Surkov, the “gray cardinal”, from the Kremlin’s presidential administration will fail to sate the appetite of those hungering for real change, especially given that his replacement, Vyacheslav Volodin, is a Putin loyalist known for his hawkish tendencies. The Kremlin’s time-honored gimmick of imitating democracy no longer works so well now that the scales have fallen from so many Russian eyes. They see clearly that the purpose behind Putin’s return to the presidency is to preserve the status quo, not upend it, as some wishful thinkers in both Russia and the West had hoped.

What if the authorities can no longer effectively manipulate Russia’s imitation democracy? Some believe that, with so much at stake in corrupted, stolen gains for Putin and those around him (in particular, the security apparatus), a crackdown is inevitable. Off will come the cloak of democracy theater, many predict. Putin, even more desperate to stay in power, will tighten the screws, employ repressive measures and accuse the “enemy” West of trying to instigate a “color revolution” in Russia. The state media campaign unleashed against the new U.S. Ambassador to Russia, Michael McFaul, virtually upon his arrival in Moscow, confirms this anti-Western approach. On the other hand, some point out that the Kremlin needs to avoid being isolated from the West, especially when many individuals among the elite have personal and financial interests in Europe and the United States. They also understand that the state lacks the resources to maintain power in an emergency situation for a long period. And there are questions about whether the military and the rank-and-file in the security services are reliable enough to carry out a sustained crackdown. 

Most likely, the Kremlin will experiment with a combination of instruments: imitation liberalization that does not endanger the kleptocracy’s holdings, selective repression and a diplomatic campaign to persuade the West that the Kremlin is on the path of liberalization while at the same time warning outside forces against meddling in Russia’s domestic affairs. If that does not work, the crackdown scenario cannot be ruled out, especially given that 33 percent of the expenditures in the 2012–14 budget is earmarked for defense and other power ministries.

No one can know for sure what the Russian leadership will do, probably because that leadership itself has no definite plans. But one thing we do know: There should be no more illusions about the nature of the Russian regime and its leadership. The current Russian system is rotten to the core and incapable of providing broad-based economic prosperity, effective governance or genuine security. Russia’s infrastructure is collapsing, social divides are deepening, ethnic tension is rising, and reserve funds now being used to ameliorate the most acute economic problems will be exhausted within a year. 

If the regime is very weak, however, the opposition is not very strong. Russia’s recent political awakening by no means guarantees that the country will pursue a democratic path even if Putin and his associates are tossed from office. There is a strong undercurrent of ultra-nationalism and xenophobia in the country. Many protestors don’t support any political party, or even necessarily democracy. They are simply against the powers that be, the party of “swindlers and thieves”, as political and digital activist Alexei Navalny calls them. Once they go, if they go, there is no telling what will follow. One of the problems is that while people now oppose rigged elections and Putin personally, few grasp that the key problem is not a particular leader but the overcentralized system endorsed by the Russian constitution. Moreover, the protests may peter out simply because it is inherently difficult to sustain a movement “against” something without having a platform “for” anything.

While Russians may find themselves at wit’s end, not all citizens of the Russian Federation will. If the atrophy or collapse of Putin’s regime portends the implosion of the system, it may result in the disintegration of the state. The North Caucasus, most notably Chechnya, already live outside of Moscow’s control and could become a renewed battleground of separatism. Ultimately, avoiding such scenarios requires that the triad of personalized power, the merger between power and business, and imperial ambitions be broken and finally buried. The monopolistic conception of power that has plagued Russia for centuries must finally give way to a system that empowers Russian civil society, independent institutions and the rule of law. The practical question, for Russians and those outside, is whether disaster is a prerequisite for real reform.

The Role of the West

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ussia’s future, to state the obvious, will be determined by Russians themselves. But Western governments have a role to play at the least by not acting as feckless enablers of policies that simply cannot end well. During the Cold War, one could justify a policy of raison d’étât because there were no alternatives. During the early post-Soviet period, one could justify a policy of friendly engagement with the Kremlin while ignoring signs of domestic deterioration and a declining human rights situation in hopes that Russia would genuinely liberalize in due course. That is no longer possible, or at least no longer justifiable. We are back to an original truth: We can gauge how a regime is likely to treat its neighbors by noting how it treats its own people. Millions of Russians, either through the ballot box or protests in the streets, have voiced their disgust with the current ruling clique, but that clique, though shaken, has given no sign of genuinely heeding the voice of the Russian people. The West cannot turn a blind eye, not out of a form of moral charity but because its own interests are imperiled. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s critical comments after the December 4 elections were especially praiseworthy for making this key point. 

The conclusion is clear: No more resets, no more benefit of the doubt. No longer can we pretend to wall off Russia’s domestic developments from its foreign policy. Even before December 4, there were some positive signs from the West that values were not being sacrificed for other interests. The European Parliament regularly adopted resolutions calling on the Kremlin to respect human rights and rule of law, as did key members of the U.S. Congress. The push in both the U.S. Congress and in some European parliaments (and Canada’s) for the “Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act”, which calls for visa bans and asset freezes against Russian officials involved in the murder of 37-year-old lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, as well as other human rights abuses, happened before the latest Duma elections. As a result of this push, led by Democratic Senator Ben Cardin of Maryland, the U.S. State Department put some of those officials on a visa blacklist in the summer of 2011. 

Alas, these examples have been the exceptions in the West. For years, going back to the Clinton and Bush Administrations, many Western leaders have shown a reluctance to publicly raise concerns about the Russian authorities’ crackdown on and suppression of civil society and opposition forces. What explains this reluctance to call things in Russia by their proper names? 

To some, Russia’s status as a major nuclear power and energy supplier with a permanent seat on the UN Security Council requires a more pragmatic approach. But that only explains the mere reluctance to raise democracy and human rights issues. The reality is that a number of Western leaders go beyond that to demonstrate their “personal chemistry” with and affinity for Russian leaders. Not long ago, most Western officials and analysts were excited about Medvedev’s “modernization” campaign, seeing it as a genuine readiness to establish democracy and rule of law. They overlooked the reality that the Kremlin’s top-down approach to modernization helped to legitimize a post-Soviet version of an anti-Western, anti-democratic system. When Putin announced his plan to return to the presidency, some Western businessmen even welcomed the news as a harbinger of benign predictability in Russia. 

Even today, some Western officials and analysts stubbornly try to find new evidence for their optimism. Some see Putin as a known quantity with whom the world has learned how to deal. Others hope “Putin 2.0” will launch real modernization. Quite a few expect the reset to continue under Putin, despite recent hiccups over missile defense and criticism over the elections, because Putin supposedly understands Russia’s need for Western technology and capital. They urge the Obama Administration to stay focused on preserving the reset and staying above the fray, whatever that means. Some even cite Putin’s decision to permit large protest rallies in December as a positive step (as if he could have done otherwise without causing significant and very embarrassing bloodshed). 

Russian reality is likely once again to teach those in the West a hard lesson. Putin and his team will be operating in a much tougher domestic environment than before, and he likely will return to the traditional model of survival: gradually closing off Russia from the West while simultaneously accusing it of posing a threat, increasing repression and bullying neighbors. The Russian ruling elite will pursue the reset only if it helps the regime survive. The conclusion as far as Western policy goes ought to be clear: With what modest leverage the West has, it should not be helping the bad guys. There is nothing “pragmatic” about contributing to an enormity. The West has some options, and they all point in the direction of a more values-based policy.

Challenging the Seven Myths

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here are several things Western governments can and should do, starting with challenging a number of the myths used to argue against a values-based approach and for a “pragmatic”, one might even say “accommodating”, approach in dealing with Russia. 

Myth One: Criticism of Russia reflects Russophobia and/or a desire to return to the Cold War. The West’s efforts to avoid antagonizing the Kremlin by downplaying human rights concerns during the 2000–08 period, when Russia’s political situation badly deteriorated, did not prevent a sharp cooling in its relations with Moscow, nor the lowest point in relations with the Russia-Georgian war of August 2008. The Kremlin sees the lack of critical reaction to Russia’s authoritarianism as acquiescence and a sign of weakness, even as a green light to engage in more such behavior.

Myth Two: Engagement with Russia helps to integrate Russia into the European space. Engagement can be worthwhile but is not an end in itself. What’s more, it must involve a range of actions that includes not just cooperation but also the principle of conditionality. The latter means that Russia’s integration in the European space should depend on how Russia’s leaders and the elite behave and whether they abide by liberal principles at home and commitments Russia has made as a member of the Council of Europe and the OSCE. Engagement practiced by both the Bush and Obama administrations and through the EU’s partnership with Russia has not so far prevented Russia from following a more authoritarian path.

 Myth Three: “Reset has brought normalization of the West’s relations with Russia.” There is no denying that relations between Russia and the West are better now than they were at the end of 2008. But it should be stressed that the “reset” has become a means, unintentionally on the side of the West, of giving the Russian corrupt system international legitimacy. Some Russian officials would like to define the reset as tacit agreement by the United States that Washington will not criticize Russia on its human rights violations. The Russian ruling elite also believe the reset enables them to integrate personally into Western society: they buy property in the West, send their children to study there, and so on. At the same time it pursues reset with the West, the Kremlin continues to use anti-Western sentiment to construct an image of outside threat to deflect attention from internal problems. While both sides praise the reset (the Kremlin grudgingly), they diverge on many issues: European security, missile defense, energy, the sovereignty of Russia’s neighbors, the Arctic, tactical nuclear weapons, terrorism and attitudes toward regimes that disregard human life (Libya under Qadaffi and Syria). Russia’s military doctrine continues to view NATO enlargement as a threat and prepares Russia for future nuclear wars (one can easily guess with whom). Thus the gains of the reset are likely to be ephemeral in nature, a point reinforced by Russia’s irrational threats to derail the reset if the Magnitsky legislation became a law. Just as lasting détente was never possible between Western democracies and the Soviet Union, a sustainable reset is virtually impossible between today’s Russia and the West, given the still wildly different systems and sets of values both sides maintain. 

Myth Four: One should not meddle in Russia’s internal affairs. This argument contradicts the international conventions Russia has signed, in particular, the European Convention on Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), and the Helsinki Final Act and the Charter of Paris. Russia, by joining the Council of Europe and the OSCE, has committed itself to the principle that its domestic affairs are not of only domestic concern. Thus the West’s renunciation of values-based assessments of Russia’s internal development spites basic Western principles and abdicates its responsibilities to stand against abuses of human rights and freedom.

Myth Five: Russia is no longer a threat to the West. True, Russia has no plans to attack the West nor is it ready for a military confrontation. But it remains a threat to the West in other ways, as well as to its neighbors, especially those hoping to integrate themselves more closely with the Euro-Atlantic community (just ask the Georgians). Russia’s political elite exports corruption to the West, pushes back against efforts to advance democracy in its neighbors, aids other authoritarian regimes around the world (Chávez, the Castros, Ortega, Assad) and lures the Western elite into cynical political trade-offs and economic buyouts. Moreover, it seeks to use its bountiful natural resources, especially energy, as weapons of influence against its neighbors. 

Myth Six: Russia is not authoritarian. People there have personal freedom. True, the Russian system gives people personal freedom so long as they stay out of politics, but even here, those freedoms are constricted by rampant, everyday corruption and the state’s abuses of power. Those who actively oppose the authorities meet the repressive fist of the state, as Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s case shows all too well. The problem is that Putinism could be an even bigger obstacle to democracy than outright dictatorship because it is less obviously repressive (so far) and lacks the stupidities of, say, Brezhnevism. In making use of cooperation with the West and packaging itself in liberal slogans, Russia’s personalized power only demoralizes society further and discredits liberal democracy. But the more brittle the system becomes, the more likely the regime will try to defend itself through force. 

Myth Seven: Russia’s people are not yet ready for liberal democracy. This is perhaps the most insulting of all the excuses for not pushing for Russia to live up to its international commitments. It is not clear why Russians are any less civilized than Bulgarians, Romanians, Mongolians or Kyrgyz, who have all chosen pluralistic systems. How is it that the millions of Russians living in the West seem to have no trouble abiding by democratic principles? The problem is not in the Russian genetic code or in Russian society’s inability to live in a free environment, but in the Russian elite, which limits freedom in order to maintain its grip on power and the perks that come with it. Stereotypes about Russians’ immaturity only help the elite keep its personalized power model in place. December’s protests, if nothing else, should have destroyed this myth.

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eyond knocking down such myths and excuses not to take a more values-based approach in dealing with Russia, the West should work to restore the role it once played in the eyes of many Russians as an attractive alternative to Russia’s personalized system of power (hard to do, one must admit, amid the European Union’s economic crisis). Western leaders also must avoid the “personal chemistry” approach with Russia’s leaders (this, anyway, is harder to do with Putin than with Medvedev) and broaden engagement with Russian civil society and other actors. Along these lines, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe would send a very strong signal and give renewed life to the protestors by rejecting membership for the new Russian Duma delegation since they would represent a parliament stemming from fraudulent elections.

By adopting conditionality in dealing with Russia, Western governments would demonstrate in the clearest terms to the Russian elite that its ability to prosper in the West depends on its behavior inside Russia itself. Members of Russia’s elite treasure the ability to integrate personally into the West. The best way to influence Russian democracy from afar is to pursue the principle of conditionality with Russian officials: If you do not engage in human rights abuses, then you can enjoy the privilege of living, working and banking in the West. Passing Magnitsky-like legislation, accordingly, is very important. Such legislation should even be broadened to include Russian officials who take part in rigging elections and suppressing democratic freedoms. Finally, the West could make an indirect contribution to reforming Russia by supporting reforms in Russia’s neighbors—above all in Ukraine, Georgia, Belarus and Moldova. A democratic belt around Russia would be a source of stability, contrary to what Putin may think. 

Governments in the West need new thinking with respect to Russia, especially in light of December’s protests and vote against the status quo. As the democratic community of nations comes to grips with the mistakes it made for decades toward authoritarian regimes in the Middle East, it should not keep making them toward Russia. Learning from those mistakes and understanding the challenges posed by an authoritarian Russia require a new approach and policy, based more firmly in democratic values and respect for human rights. Russia should no longer remain an exceptional case. While events in Russia are unfolding at a frenzied pace, those in the West, like those in Russia, must understand that the legitimacy of Russia’s current authorities is crumbling. So, too, should the old ways of dealing with Russia and the myths that surround it. 

David J. Kramer, a former Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, is president of Freedom House in Washington, DC. Lilia Shevtsova, an AI editorial board member, is senior fellow at the Carnegie Moscow Center.