What Russia needs most: Civil society engagement, not appeasement
Ignoring the worst abuses and empowering authoritarians means betraying our friends in Russia – and undermining US leadership around the world.
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Also off the menu: a political diktat in courts, which Medvedev denounced; out-of-control police who shoot innocent civilians weekly, according to Russian human rights organizations and the media; the interrogators who tortured and murdered Sergey Magnitsky and a lawyer for the British firm Hermitage Capital in the infamous Butyrki jail. The list is long, the omissions deliberate to make Russia comfortable.Skip to next paragraph
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As the famous Russian prisoner Mikhail Khodorkovsky said, “Where will Russia be heading in the next decade? Certainly, a political economy based upon the export of raw materials and corruption can enjoy a certain longevity, so long as there is stable demand for both.”
Mr. Khodorkovsky’s plight symbolizes what’s wrong with Russia’s necrotic “justice” system. Once the founder of the most transparent oil company, Khodorkovsky was sentenced to nine years for alleged tax evasion, and his company taken away by the state. Today, he’s facing what the majority of Russian and Western legal experts consider a kangaroo court on trumped-up charges. Khodorkovsky has become one of the many proverbial canaries in the Russian coal mine of legal abuse.
Adding Russian insult to American injury was the Jan. 31 demonstration by 300 democratic activists on the Triumphalny Square in the center of Moscow. Their aim: to uphold Article 31 of the Russian Constitution, which guarantees freedom of assembly.
The Moscow police detained and brutally beat the demonstrators – sending a message that to some siloviki (men of power), the civil society dialogue with the US means nothing. Among those detained: the former First Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov; the Sakharov Prize laureate and the head of Memorial human rights organization, Oleg Orlov; and many others. A month earlier, the hallowed Lyudmila Alexeeva, the 82-year-old leader of the Moscow Helsinki Group, was similarly detained.
Granted, the Obama administration is facing a challenging relationship vis-à-vis Moscow, which includes negotiating the START Treaty, Afghanistan resupply transit problems, and UN sanctions against Iran, to name a few.
Yet, the US has to develop and implement an engagement strategy promoting freedom and human rights in Russia.
We should use every tool in our public diplomacy toolbox, such as international broadcasting, including creating a new satellite TV channel. Social media and revamped exchange programs should be a part of such as strategy. And US and European counterparts should stress engagement with the Russian civil society, including NGOs and political forces supporting transparency, markets, the rule of law, and political pluralism.
Ariel Cohen, PhD, is a senior research fellow in Russian and Eurasian Studies and International Energy Policy at the Katherine and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Policy at The Heritage Foundation.
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