As President Barack Obama enters his second term, the reset of US- Russian relations “has clearly run its course,” a new analysis suggests, leaving “little doubt that a new American policy toward the Kremlin is needed.”
The US should “actively challenge—rhetorically and through policy decisions—the authoritarian actions of the regime…at the highest levels of the U.S. government, starting with President Obama,” says a report from Freedom House, the US-based rights watchdog.
A close ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin this week claimed that the US violated “a tacit understanding” to refrain from publicly criticizing Russia’s democratic regression, undermining the 2009 reset negotiated with then-president Dmitry Medvedev.
But Washington should “abandon talk of seeking ‘win-win’ cooperation, since Putin views power relations in zero-sum terms,” the report suggests.
Furthermore, the US must implement the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act; restore the notion of “linkage” to make clear that human rights and democracy will affect broader bilateral relations; and “stand in solidarity with Russian activists—financially and vocally—by finding innovative ways to continue supporting those who seek political liberalization in Russia.”
The Obama administration had based its hope for improved ties on the ability of Medvedev to secure liberal reforms, but expectations were frustrated as Vladimir Putin remained the dominant force in government and Russia “moved abruptly in a more repressive direction” upon his return to the presidency, writes Freedom House research director Arch Puddington, in an introduction to Contending with Putin’s Russia: A Call for American Leadership:
Putin has since pushed through measures to deter public demonstrations, smear and limit funding for nongovernmental organizations, and place restrictions on the internet…made anti-Americanism a central part of his political message…accused the United States of fomenting demonstrations against election fraud, shut down all U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) programs in Russia, withdrawn from a series of cooperative agreements with the United States, and signed a vindictive law that prohibits the adoption of Russian children by citizens of the United States.
Nevertheless, the Kremlin’s “more aggressive behavior should not be misread as a sign that Putin’s position is stronger than before,” according to Freedom House president David J. Kramer and Eurasia program director Susan Corke.
“At heart, his recent actions represent a paranoid and compensatory response to the understanding that the system he built is growing increasingly vulnerable.”
While Russia’s domestic repression gives considerable cause for concern, its authoritarian inclinations also have an international impact, Kramer and Corke contend.
“The Kremlin is determined to thwart democratic uprisings anywhere in the world because each event thins the protective global herd of dictators and is potentially transferable to Russia itself,” they write.
The report includes a valuable factsheet outlining the series of legal restrictions on non-governmental groups during the Putin era, prepared by Katherin Machalek, research analyst for Nations in Transit; an equally useful chronology, prepared by researcher Marissa Miller, detailingthe suppression of political opposition, independent media, and civil society; and severaltables and graphs, prepared by senior research assistant Bret Nelson, illustrating the decline of political rights and civil liberties in Russia as measured by Freedom House’s annual reports.
“Since the mass protests that spanned the period between the December 2011 parliamentary elections and Putin’s inauguration last spring, the regime’s ability to keep a lid on dissent has been sorely challenged,” Kramer and Corke suggest:
Surveys show that an increasing number of Russians, especially the younger generation, are interested in emigrating from the country. They are fed up with daily corruption and a stagnant political outlook that was exacerbated by Putin’s decision in September 2011 to return to the presidency.
Public support for the president has fallen below 50 percent in some recent surveys, and even lower in Moscow, while civic activism is on the rise. More than 100,000 Russians signed a petition on Novaya Gazeta’s website to oppose the U.S. adoption ban, and even several government ministers spoke against it.
“This is a very stable trend: falling confidence, the declining legitimacy of the authorities,” according to Lev Gudkoy, director of the Levada Center, a Moscow-based opinion research group supported by the National Endowment for Democracy.
The general sense of decay is reinforced by the warped, hydrocarbon-based economy, disintegrating infrastructure and social supports, and a long-term demographic decline.
Putin’s authority essentially rests on personal support from the governing elites and security services, as opposed to electoral legitimacy, the rule of law, or formal state institutions. If these elites sense that he is losing his grip or his ability to enable their graft, the whole authoritarian system could come tumbling down amid defections and infighting.
As New York University professor Mark Galeotti put it, “The power of the center is, after all, as much as anything else rooted in imagination and belief; if people think Putin weak, then weak he will be.”
Economist Anders Aslund summed up the problem this way: “He represents no real values and therefore lacks any source of legitimacy other than stability and economic growth that will not last forever.”
Policy Recommendations for the U.S. Government:
? Actively challenge—rhetorically and through policy decisions—the authoritarian actions of the Putin regime, and do so at the highest levels of the U.S. government, starting with President Obama.
? Abandon talk of seeking “win-win” cooperation, since Putin views power relations in zero-sum terms and will not pursue such mutual benefits in good faith.
? Implement aggressively and fairly the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act to deny those Russian officials involved in human rights abuses the privileges of U.S. travel and banking services.
? Restore the notion of “linkage” as a policy tool to make clear that human rights and democracy are part of and will affect the broader bilateral relationship.
? Stand in solidarity with Russian activists—financially and vocally—by finding innovative ways to continue supporting those who seek political liberalization in Russia. This will be most effective when it is coordinated with allies.
? Delay a decision on President Obama’s attendance at the Group of 20 meeting in Moscow in September, and indicate that an earlier trip to meet with Putin in Russia is not possible without a serious turnaround in the country’s human rights situation.
? Withhold support for Russia’s bid to join the OECD unless and until Moscow starts abiding by the rules and norms of organizations to which it already belongs.
? Aggressively investigate potential violations of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act in Russia.
? Work with Russia whenever possible, but when its leaders obstruct international efforts to uphold democracy and human rights or prevent atrocities, search for ways to work around or without Russia.