Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Window on Eurasia: US Planning to Treat Russia as It Did the USSR, Moscow Commentator Says

Paul Goble

Vienna, October 14 – The Obama Administration “has decided to conduct its relations with [the Russian Federation] just as it did with the Soviet Union,” an approach that reflects Washington’s judgment that “in the near future, Russia will not change in any way,” according to a leading Moscow commentator.
The United States understands, Anton Orekh argues on his Ekho Moskvy blog, that “the struggle for democracy and human rights in Russia is something noble but unlikely to bring results” while the pursuit of agreements with Moscow on issues like Iran and non-proliferation could be crowned with success (
“The present administration,” he suggests in the wake of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s visit to Moscow, “has more than once been able to show its rational approach to problems: That [the US] cannot change, [it] will not take notice of, while that which [Washington] can do, [it] will do.”
At many points during the Cold War, he says, previous American administrations dealt with “communists from the USSR” in just the same way.” Washington “did not love with all its soul. But business is business, and [from this perspective] it is more important than feelings.”
Not surprisingly, many Russian human rights activists are both disturbed by this trend, to the extent that Orekh has identified it correctly. They were initially upset by the comments of Michael McFaul as reported in “Kommersant” on Monday following the NSC staffer’s meetings with Kremlin ideologist Vladislav Surkov (
Russian rights activists were angered by three things “Kommersant” reported, each of which at least in part McFaul and others have suggested the Moscow paper misquoted him or misconstrued his meaning. First, the activists were upset that the NSC staffer had suggested that Washington will refrain from “public criticism” of Surkov’s beloved “sovereign democracy.”
Second, they were angered that the joint commission on civil society would not include NGO representatives. And third, they were angered by the notion -- added it should be noted by “Kommersant” -- that McFaul had equated what they do with what Moscow operatives like Andranik Migranyan of the New York-based Institute of Democracy and Cooperation.
In fact, what McFaul was quoted as saying could be read in many ways: “We do not want to play the role of accuser,” he told “Kommersant.” “The style of [this] US president does not consist of pointing fingers and threatening. He has a different approach.” But even that was read by many activists as unfortunate.
Lyudmila Alekseyeva, the dean of Russian human rights activists who heads the Moscow Helsinki Group, said that “if America says: ‘we have democracy, and you can arrange things for yourselves as you like,’ then everything the democratic countries have achieved since 1975 [will go by the wayside” (
Moreover, she continued, “if America and the rest of the world will silently watch while freedom of the press is suppressed [in Russia], while meetings and demonstrations are broken up, … while political parties are shackled and elections falsified, … then, in that case, [she said she thought] that the Nobel Peace Prize had been given to Barak Obama prematurely.”
Meanwhile, Lev Ponomaryev, the head of the For Human Rights Movement, was somewhat less definitive. He said that Russian rights activists should “understand that politics often is a compromise” and advising others to wait a little to see what Obama in fact does before drawing any conclusion (
But Vladimir Bukovsky, a Soviet-era dissident who is a leader of Solidarity, said that Washington must remember in the words of that “the problem of human rights is directly connected with the problem of international security” because countries that ignore human rights “are inclined to aggression” (
At a meeting in Spaso House at the conclusion of her visit, Secretary Clinton was able to reassure some but not all Russian rights activists that the United States was not backing away from its commitment to human rights and democracy in Russia but simply pursuing these goals in a new war (
Alekseyeva was slightly more positive after the one-hour session, but others were not: Memorial’s Oleg Orlov, for example, said that the meeting had “an absolutely formal character,” something he suggested precluded any real exploration of either the problems of human rights in Russia or Washington’s approach (
Given these uncertainties about where Moscow and Washington are heading, Orekh provided a thoughtful comment. He said that he fully understood why Russia’s human rights activists are upset by Washington’s apparent shift, but he then added that they should understand that “in the struggle for changes in [Russian] society, [Russians] can count only on themselves.”
“No one except us can resolve this problem,” he concluded, and rather than continue to “appeal to the enlightened West” to come and save Russia from itself, “it would be better [for those who care about human rights and democracy] to more actively work with one’s own citizens however difficult such work inevitably is.”

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