Academic journal article Demokratizatsiya

Russia and Central Asia: The Growing Policy Challenges for the International Community

Academic journal article Demokratizatsiya

Russia and Central Asia: The Growing Policy Challenges for the International Community

Article excerpt

Distinguished speakers and guests, ladies and gentlemen, I would like to thank Freedom House for inviting me to speak at this important event. Freedom House has well earned its reputation as one of the foremost democracy-promoting organizations in the world. Moreover, Nations in Transit--whose 2007 edition this conference is launching--has become an indispensable source of information, measuring the advance of democratization around the globe. Thanks also to SAIS for co-hosting and my congratulations to you on the success of your Russia and Eurasian Studies Program.

I chair the Helsinki Commission, which Congress created in 1976 to monitor and promote the implementation of the Helsinki Final Act in all the participating states. Moreover, I have recently completed two years as president of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly--the only American to ever hold that post. In that capacity, I visited thirty-one OSCE states, including Russia and all the Central Asian countries. In my travels and in Washington, I have met with presidents and foreign ministers; with parliamentarians, opposition leaders, and dissenters; and with journalists and human rights activists.

In these remarks, I would like to give you my assessment of where I see democratic governance and human rights trending in the region, more than fifteen years after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

But first, I want to state that we need to take back the moral high ground that we once stood on. This starts by holding ourselves accountable when human rights issues arise here at home. Not that we have anything to be afraid of. But we must take away the credibility of those who would accuse us of double standards. As Chairman of the Helsinki Commission, this will be one of my priorities.

Let me now talk about Russia. You are all surely familiar with President Putin's speech in Munich [in February], and how pundits have characterized U.S.-Russian relations these days. It is a bad sign when our secretary of defense has to note, "one Cold War was enough." Actually, one Cold War was more than enough.

Now, I understand that Russians remember the 1990s very differently than we do. Despite what many viewed from abroad as a "springtime" of freedom for Russia and the territory of the former Soviet Union, many citizens of Russia remember the nineties as a period of tremendous economic dislocation, rampant crime, chaos at home, and humiliation abroad. The relative order and, at least, superficial international respect that President Vladimir Putin brought to Russia has been welcomed by a majority of the Russian population and seems to be strongly supported by the younger generation. From our point of view, this runs somewhat counter to the assumption that the postcommunist generation would yearn for still greater freedom and be less pugnacious. It is necessary that we find a way to come to grips with these divergent views of the recent past as we look to the future.

So it's understandable that today, Russians proudly proclaim that "Russia is back." This is certainly true, and in no small measure due to high energy prices. Nor is it surprising that a great country with vast human and material resources should rebound from even the disruptions of the last twenty years. What troubles me, and many others, is what kind of Russia has returned to a leading role on the world stage.

Russian officials maintain that their democracy is developing in its own way and in accordance with its own traditions. They accuse the United States of unilateralism in foreign affairs and of seeking to impose the American form of democratic governance on Russia and the rest of the world and of hypocritically meddling in the affairs of others.

To be sure, our attempts to spread the undeniable benefits of the American experience have not always been distinguished by cultural sensitivity. But I get nervous when I hear the phrase "according to our own traditions and national mentality. …

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