March 7, 2005
by David Satter
The key question that hangs over today’s summit meeting between President Bush and Russian leader Vladimir Putin in Bratislava is whether the U.S. is prepared to continue to accept the steady dismantling of democracy in Russia.
On Monday, Bush indicated that the policy is about to change. His warning in Brussels that Russia must commit itself to democracy and the rule of law was significant because, in the past, Bush has avoided public criticism of Russia in the belief that a passive U.S. attitude toward Russia’s increasingly undemocratic practices was essential to guaranteeing Russia’s cooperation in the war on terror.
Recent events, however, including Putin’s open embrace of Iran’s nuclear ambitions, may have convinced the administration that this justification is wearing thin.
In fact, whether self censorship was ever necessary is open to doubt. Russia’s help in the war against the Taliban removed a threat to Russia itself. It is hard to imagine a situation in which Russia would not have backed an attempt to destroy the Taliban.
At the same time, America’s tolerant attitude toward Russian human rights abuses led Putin to assume that he could pursue his authoritarian internal policies without cost. It was faith that Bush would give him a free hand that inspired Putin virtually to campaign for Bush’s reelection.
The problem is that Putin’s drive toward authoritarianism is itself transforming relations between Russia and the West. What has emerged in Russia is a bureaucratic regime dominated by former KGB agents. Such a regime is not a reliable, strategic ally of the U.S. because it is expansionist, fosters massive corruption and pursues internal policies that cannot but alienate civil society in the West.
Russia’s expansionism is a direct result of Putin’s “reforms.” Having neutralized independent centers of power, Putin has no effective opponents. But he also has no effective supporters except persons connected to the army, FSB and the police. Unfortunately, these are the elements that are the most hostile to the West and the most adamant in supporting efforts by Russia to dominate the former Soviet space. A chilling example of what this means were conversations captured on audiotape by the Ukrainian secret service and aired on Channel 5 implicating FSB officers in the attempted poisoning of President Viktor Yushchenko.
Russia’s growing authoritarianism also undermines strategic cooperation by encouraging massive corruption. In 2002, the U.S. tried to convince Russia to “reconsider” its cooperation with Iran. It offered military and space cooperation and approval for the storage in Russia of foreign nuclear waste if Russia would cut off its trade with Tehran in arms and nuclear technology. The deal was rejected because a transparent deal with the U.S. cannot produce the scams and payoffs that are possible in a nontransparent deal with a rogue state, many of which benefit Kremlin officials.
Finally, Putin’s authoritarianism creates tension between Russia and the West because his policies are unacceptable to Western society. Fixed elections, a controlled press, and the readiness to squander lives in hostage situations will anger Western public opinion, regardless of the attitude of political leaders. Russians typically then respond with blanket condemnations of the West.
Under these circumstances, the U.S. needs to combat Putin’s authoritarianism not least of all to counteract tendencies that, in the long run, will make it impossible for Russia to become a strategic ally.
One area where the U.S. can have influence is in support for the rule of law. Fear has returned to Russia in part because selective prosecution is being used to eliminate opponents of the regime.
The best known case is that of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the former head of Yukos oil company and Russia’s richest person who was arrested more than a year ago and charged with tax avoidance and fraud. Khodorkovsky was incriminated for maneuvers that allowed him in 1994 to buy the state’s share in Apatit, a fertilizer plant, for a fraction of its real value. The other Russian oligarchs made their fortunes with the help of similar maneuvers and, if the law were applied equally, could be prosecuted on the same grounds. The difference is that Khodorkovsky, having amassed wealth, began to work for political pluralism, becoming a major supporter of opposition political parties. It was this and not any economic crimes that led to his demise.
Another area in which the U.S. needs to make clear its opposition is Putin’s undermining of Russia’s democratic institutions.
Russia’s formerly elected governors have been converted into appointed officials – a clear violation of the Russian Constitution. Insofar as the regime already controls the executive branch, the State Duma and the judiciary, the appointment of governors, who, in turn, will begin to appoint mayors and district officials, will eliminate what little political pluralism in Russia still exists.
Finally, and perhaps most important, the U.S. should exert pressure for a political settlement of the war in Chechnya. In the ten years since Russia launched the First Chechen War, anywhere from 150,000 to 200,000 persons have died in Chechnya. The Russians have also murdered and kidnapped thousands of Chechens in security sweeps.
Bringing an end to the Chechen War, however, is, at least in theory, possible. The cease fire announced this month by Chechen leader Aslan Maskhadov has apparently held. Maskhadov’s representatives abroad have endorsed peace plans that do not even insist on full independence for Chechnya but rather provide for a form of guaranteed autonomy.
The Chechen resistance long ago became a battle not for territory but for self respect. Active U.S. support for a political settlement in Chechnya can help to prevent the Chechens from becoming a constituent part of international Islamic terrorism with serious consequences not only for Russia but for the U.S.
The U.S. does have influence in Russia, particularly when its position is linked to overarching values. In a poll taken in January, 2004, 75 per cent of the Russian respondents said they wanted Russia to be an ally or friend of the West. Fewer than three per cent thought that the West was an enemy of Russia.
Now, as the Putin regime steadily isolates itself from society, rendering itself, at the same time, progressively more unstable, it is the American obligation to help reinforce the democratic instincts of the 75 per cent. The result could ultimately be to save Russia for the Western alliance and to save Russia from itself.
This article appeared in The Wall Street Journal on February 23, 2005.
David Satter, a Senior Fellow at Hudson Institute and a visting scholar at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS), is the author of It Was a Long Time Ago, and It Never Happened Anyway: Russia and the Communist Past (Yale). Age of Delirium, a documentary film about the fall of the Soviet Union based on his book of the same name, was recently released.
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