The Monitor's View

Time to reset the reset in US-Russia ties

Human rights and democracy abuses have worsened in Russia. Despite a smoother relationship from the diplomatic 'reset' between Washington and Moscow, the US should more forcefully pressure Russia for progress on rights, especially as elections loom.

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One of the most prominent opposition leaders in Russia – former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov – visited Washington this week to plead for outspoken American criticism of Russian human rights abuses. He especially urged international pressure for free and fair parliamentary and presidential elections scheduled for next year and 2012.

But Mr. Kasyanov, who was the first prime minister under then-President Vladimir Putin, didn’t ask for a meeting with any officials in the Obama administration – although he met with the French foreign minister in Paris earlier this month.

Kasyanov didn’t want to put the administration in an “awkward situation,” he explained to a group of Russia watchers and journalists at the US German Marshall Fund on Tuesday. After all, these same officials are trying to “reset” strained US-Russian relations.

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His dilemma is understandable. Smoother US-Russian ties have produced substantive benefits for both countries, benefits that Kasyanov supports. They include cooperation on sanctions against Iran, on the war in Afghanistan, and on nuclear disarmament.

But, he added, it’s time now for a more “principled and intelligent” reset, one in which the United States doesn’t close its eyes to Russia’s human rights and democratic failings. On this count, he’s also correct.

The Obama team has responded too mildly to violent suppression of protests in Russia – and to attacks, arrests, and murders relating to journalists, political opposition figures, and government critics. US expressions of “concern” and “regret” are not adequate.

Western leaders may have hoped for a gradual restoration of democracy with the election of Putin protégé Dmitry Medvedev as president in 2008. But while Mr. Medvedev can at times distance himself rhetorically from his autocratic mentor, who is now prime minister, that has not translated into improvements on the ground.

Freedom House, an independent watchdog organization based in Washington, rates Russia as “not free” in its 2010 country ratings. Russia is on a “downward” trend because of growing police corruption, repeated use of political terror against government critics, and electoral abuses.

Indeed, the government denies recognition of Kasyanov’s political party, and the economist-turned-dissident has feared for his personal safety. He’s now attempting to unite with other opposition groups in preparation for the next round of national elections.

If history repeats itself, the balloting will not be free or fair. In 2007, Russia waited so long to grant visas to international election monitors and placed so many restrictions on them, that the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe did not monitor the vote. In 2008, the OSCE did not monitor Russia’s presidential election for similar reasons.

Moscow is a signatory to this preeminent security and rights group, and should not be allowed to pull such a stunt again. The US and Europe should apply pressure now for access to Russia’s campaign and election process – access that starts months in advance, not just on election day. As leverage, the US can remind Russia that the OSCE is monitoring America’s elections scheduled for November – a first for this group.

Indeed, Kasyanov wants America and Europe to “just treat Russia like a normal state” by holding it to human rights standards under its various international obligations. No more “special ticket” for Putin & Co. Russian leaders, he says, are not indifferent to foreign opinion.

The Obama administration should heed this advice. And next time, Kasyanov should not be so shy about whom he puts on his appointment calendar.

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