What Russia Needs Most: Civil Society Engagement, Not Appeasement

By Cohen, Ariel | The Christian Science Monitor, February 10, 2010 | Go to article overview

What Russia Needs Most: Civil Society Engagement, Not Appeasement


Cohen, Ariel, The Christian Science Monitor


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. …

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