This is not the time to abandon Russia

Posted in Europe , Russia , United States | 04-Feb-04 | Author: Charles Maynes| Source: International Herald Tribune

A waning romance

WASHINGTON - The Western romance with Vladimir Putin's Russia seems to be ending. The U.S. ambassador in Russia speaks of a "breech of values" between Russia and the United States. Western officials denounce recent Russian diplomatic moves in Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine. Secretary of State Colin Powell says in an essay published in a Russian newspaper while he was meeting with President Putin that "key aspects of civil society - free media and political party development, for example - have not yet sustained an independent presence."

Are we seeing an end to the 10-year effort to integrate Russia into the West?

Many reach a pessimistic answer to this question because of their assessment of Putin himself. As one top specialist on Russia said last week, "The picture of Putin as a soft authoritarian leader is almost conventional wisdom, and that's a threat to the relationship."

Now the U.S. secretary of state has given an interview to a Russian newspaper in which he raises publicly many Western concerns: The "free but not fair" parliamentary elections that drove the most pro-Western parties out of the Parliament; the progressive end to private ownership of all national TV channels; the tone-deaf Russian response to outside criticism of its policies in Chechnya; and the high-handed manner in which the state has pursued the tax-evasion case against the oil baron and Western favorite, Mikhail Khodorkovsky.

Any midcourse correction in policy, however, must confront some political realities and some structural dilemmas in the West's relations with Russia.

First, Putin is popular for many of the same reasons that Western-style Russian democrats are unpopular. Putin took a country lacking direction and hope while the Western-style democrats were in charge, and he restored both.

Although from a very different political tradition, Putin has assumed in Russia a role similar to that of Charles de Gaulle in France - a man who pulled his country back from the precipice. Like de Gaulle's, Putin's performance so far is impressive in the eyes of his voters - pensions paid, wages restored, radical tax reform, budget surpluses, trade surpluses, Russia as a contributor internationally rather than a beggar.

Whether Putin now uses his extraordinary political position to push Russia in the direction of democracy, however, will depend in part on some structural issues, which the West must urgently press on him or address itself. To wit:

The nexus between democracy and acceptance. As one of Russia's harsher critics, Janusz Bugajski, recently acknowledged in an article in The National Interest, many of the Russian foreign-policy moves that the West now denounces, particularly those in the economic field, would be seen as "benign or beneficial" if Russia were a democratic state.

As Russia gets up off its knees, neighbors will become alarmed even by otherwise quite acceptable Russian behavior because of harsh memories. If Russia is to become an accepted Western state, it must become democratic.

The consequences of U.S. nuclear strategy and NATO expansion. The United States must try to reduce the voice of the security forces in Moscow policy circles. Now it is strong: Russian generals can point out that 95 percent of America's nuclear arsenal is still directed against Russia.

Washington should therefore challenge Moscow to remove at least 50 percent of the thousands of warheads now deployed on each side. Such a step would still leave enough missiles to destroy every major city in both countries, but it would convey a direction in the relationship that would encourage the more democratic voices in the Russian security establishment. Reducing the number of nuclear-tipped missiles would also soften the impact of steady NATO expansion to the East.

Assisting the Middle Ground states. At this point, it seems unlikely that Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Ukraine, Moldova or Belarus will be allowed to join the European Union for years to come. At the same time, the United States and other western countries bitterly resist any effort by Russia to organize a similar economic space east of the EU. Cut off from any sizable market, several of these states are sinking deeper and deeper into poverty.

There must be some way to encourage closer and needed economic ties among the former Soviet states without relegating them to pawns of Moscow. Otherwise, we are leaving several of these states in an economics no-man's land.

Not giving up. Putin is almost certain to be re-elected this spring and soon thereafter he will set Russia on a course that will be difficult to alter for years to come. Now is the time to be especially energetic in helping those inside Russia who are struggling to build civil society and strengthen democracy. This is not the time to talk of ending the Freedom Support Act. European and America should work together to maintain a sufficient flow of funds in this area to keep hope alive.

At this point in their history, neither Russia nor the United States has a surplus of friends abroad. Neither needs another antagonistic country to contend with.

In dealing with Russia, Washington should not simply adopt a policy of public criticism. It should develop a strategy to reverse the course. on which the relationship with Russia is now moving.

The writer is president of the Eurasia Foundation, which supports efforts to strengthen free institutions and markets in the former Soviet Union.