Today’s transfer of Mikhail Khodorkovsky to Moscow for trial, coming shortly after a unanimous jury verdict dismissed charges against Anna Politkovskaya‘s alleged killers, highlights the dubious integrity of Russia’s judicial process.
At a time of growing disillusionment with the government, it also serves as a warning to would-be dissidents. Khodorkovsky’s imprisonment had a chilling effect on criticism of the Kremlin, said Lev Ponomarev, the head of Russia’s For Human Rights organization.
Reports suggest that the impact of the economic downturn is fomenting divisions within the ruling elite, as the regime’s performance-based legitimacy appears fragile. “[Russian President Dmitry] Medvedev is very concerned about the situation in Russia, and I believe the main goal of the government is to avoid any kind of panic among the population, to maintain a certain kind of political stability,” according Yevgeny Volk, director of the Moscow office of the Washington-based Heritage Foundation.
Russia may be “cracking down at home and throwing its weight around abroad“, but the economic crisis and falling oil prices have humbled the Kremlin’s “petro-superpower” aspirations, writes Strobe Talbott.
But a less arrogant Russia is not necessarily ripe for liberalization and democratic reform, he cautions. “A Russia that is less cocky and more self-consciously vulnerable about its standing in an interconnected world could go in one of two directions: it might become more repressive and bellicose, or it may recognise that a state’s success and security is directly proportional to its ability to make a virtue out of global interdependence.”
He calls for engaging Russia through established international institutions while accepting that “[l]eaders from countries based on democracy and the rule of law must be true to those principles in the way they talk to Russians.”
But the Washington Post‘s Jackson Diehl is less convinced that the Kremlin is ready to press the reset button given the regime’s reliance on “Putin’s unaltered domestic political formula: harsh repression of critics such as Kasparov, the unsolved murders of leading journalists and human rights activists, and relentless television propaganda that describes Russia as a great power encircled by enemies – foremost among them the United States.”. Diehl cites Arsenii Roginski of the human rights group Memorial, a grantee of the National Endowment for Dmeocracy: ”Of course the authorities understand that they need good relations with America now. ………..But also the authorities understand that the population should be told who is the enemy, and why you don’t live well – and that is America. And this is the contradiction.”
The administration has confirmed that Stanford’s Michael McFaul will be one of the key figures charged with shaping US-Russia policy as special assistant to the president for National Security Affairs and senior director for Russian and Eurasian affairs at the National Security Council. Liberal foreign policy blogger Matthew Yglesias approves of the appointment but his analysis demonstrates the limited utility of labels like realist, idealist, hardliner and pragmatist. Even though Yglesias appears to disapprove of these kind of manifestos, he accepts that “with regard to both democracy promotion in general and Russia in particular, McFaul’s a bona fide expert who really knows what he’s talking about.”
In support of his claim, he cites the article on “Should Democracy Be Promoted or Demoted?”, co-authored with Francis Fukuyama, and the fall 2005 article with James Goldgeier on “What To Do About Russia” which advocates “[d]irect personal engagement with Russian democratic activists” and a substantial investment in funds for Russian civil society programs.