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.

The Obama administration’s Russian “reset button” continues to malfunction.

The latest ignominy was a meeting last month between Russia and the United States designed by presidents of both countries to reset relations and explore new opportunities for partnership. Two days after the US-Russia Bilateral Presidential Commission’s Civil Society Working Group’s ineffective meeting, Moscow police dispersed a demonstration to support the right of assembly provided by the Russian Constitution and arrested one-third of the participants.

The US State Department issued a feeble “concern.”

Ignoring the worst abuses and empowering authoritarians means betraying our friends in Russia – and undermining US leadership around the world. Human rights and civil society have to remain part of the bilateral relationship.

Last summer, the Kremlin and the White House created the Commission to expand bilateral cooperation. Two government officials co-chair the Civil Society group (nongovernmental organizations are not members). At its first meeting, it tamely discussed child abuse, corruption “in the US and Russia,” and “fighting mutual stereotypes.”

The American co-chair, Michael McFaul, senior director at the National Security Council, is a Stanford professor and a democracy expert. Mr. McFaul knows Moscow and its democracy movement better than anyone in the Obama administration.

He also knows what Prime Minister Putin, and the Medvedev administration, are doing to that movement. But the White House went out of its way to make the Russians feel welcome – and feel welcome they did. The Moscow media hailed the meeting as a “dialogue of the equals.”

But it can’t be so: Russia is at the bottom of the Transparency International corruption index. Russia is also classified as a “mostly unfree” economy: the 143rd on The Heritage Foundation/Wall Street Journal’s “Index of Economic Freedom,” above Vietnam but behind Haiti. Yet the discussion focused equally on corruption there and in the US. Conservative estimates put the number of Russia’s homeless children at over 2 million. Yet the group spent time discussing child abuse, which is on the decline, in America.

Indeed, anti-Americanism seems to be Russia’s state policy, as the Kremlin pays for movies, TV shows, books, articles, and blogs lambasting America.

Even more important were things absent on the group’s agenda. Absent from discussion were the murders of journalists and human rights activists such as Anna Politkovskaya of the Novaya Gazeta; barriers to political party activities; and pervasive censorship in the media.

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.

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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