TCS Daily

Stopping the Backsliding

By Pejman Yousefzadeh - November 24, 2004 12:00 AM

One of the Bush Administration's most pressing foreign policy concerns is the state of the democratization movement in Russia. The movement has seen better days, to say the least. From the decision made by President Vladimir Putin to prevent Russia's 89 states from directly electing their own governors and independent lawmakers to the degree of media and literary censorship going on inside the country, fears are renewed that Russia is backsliding towards a new authoritarian or totalitarian system of government.

Additionally, Russia observers fear that because of the continued War on Terror, and the Bush Administration's desire to court Russian assistance and influence in the prosecution of that war, the United States has few cards to play in stopping any kind of backsliding from democracy. The consensus in many circles is that President Putin effectively has a free hand in consolidating absolute political power, and that the United States is willing -- or worse yet, is obliged -- to turn a blind eye to any hint of Russian authoritarianism because American security needs will trump the need for democracy promotion.

This need not be the case, however. Contrary to the conventional wisdom, the United States can continue to press the case for democratization and liberalization in Russia without paying a significant price on the security side of the ledger. Both treaty obligations and the geopolitical realities of the day impel further democratization, and allow for the United States and the West in general to keep up the pressure for the realization of a free society in Russia.

The key in this effort is to go beyond the conventional wisdom -- which dictates that Russia is close to being indispensable as an ally in the War on Terror. In truth, reports of Russian indispensability are greatly exaggerated. This webpage details the degree to which Russia has lent assistance to United States Central Command efforts in Afghanistan. While Russian assistance is appreciated, it generally involves humanitarian assistance that could -- if necessary -- be rendered by other countries should Russia choose to withdraw its efforts in Afghanistan. Russia offers no military assistance of any kind in either Afghanistan or Iraq, and has no presence whatsoever in the ongoing reconstruction efforts in Iraq. As such, it is more than a little difficult to make the case that Russia is offering help in the War on Terror that cannot be rendered from any other quarter should Russia, in an extreme case, decide to pull out of anti-terrorist operations around the world.

We should recognize as well that an authoritarian Russia is a threat to American national security interests and to the general American effort for democracy promotion. Robert Kagan points this out noting that democracy promotion in the Middle East will suffer particularly if the United States fails to press for democratization in Russia. Additionally, Kagan argues that a Russian dictator will be in no position to work with an American President as an ally, "because America's very existence, its power, its global influence, its democratic example will threaten his hold on power." A democratized Russia, on the other hand, will be more transparent in its decision-making and its foreign policy goals, lessening the chance that miscalculations between the United States and Russia could lead to war. And because a democratically elected Russian leader would possess legitimacy similar to his American counterpart, there would be little incentive for such a Russian leader to feel threatened by America's democratic example. While the nature of the international structure and a nation-state's own rational calculations about self-interest may govern foreign policy more than the nature of a nation-state's own government or the identity of its individual leader, the fact remains that the nature of government and individual leadership still play at least some role in how a nation-state conducts statecraft. By pushing for increased democratization in Russia, we ensure that we do not neglect important considerations regarding the nature of Russia's government, or the claims of its individual leaders to democratic legitimacy.

Russia has treaty obligations mandating that it respect human rights-treaty obligations that can be used to further the democratization movement. As the successor state to the former Soviet Union, Russia is bound by the Helsinki Final Act of 1975. The Act is meant to encourage "effective exercise of civil, political, economic, social, cultural and other rights and freedoms all of which derive from the inherent dignity of the human person and are essential for his free and full development." It was used to raise human rights and political liberalization concerns with the Soviets during the Cold War, and was quite successful as a tool for bringing the issue of liberalization and human rights to the forefront of the agenda in meetings between American and Soviet officials. It has served as a useful template as well for pursuing the cause of human rights and political liberalization in Sino-American relations, and can be directly revived in dealing with and addressing the course of political liberalization in Russia. When one also considers the existence of economic incentives should Russia comply with the terms of the Helsinki Final Act, it becomes clear that contrary to popular opinion, the United States and the West can influence Russian behavior in the sphere of democratization in many ways.

It is in the security interests of the United States to encourage and have realized a genuine democracy in Russia. The U.S. is not so beholden to Russian help and cooperation in the War on Terror to push Vladimir Putin's government towards the goal of democratization, and will be able to further the cause of political liberalization through existing treaties like the Helsinki Final Act, and economic incentives in exchange for Russian cooperation on this issue. It is reassuring to see that in the recent meeting between Presidents Bush and Putin in Santiago, Chile, Putin affirmed his opposition to a renaissance of totalitarianism in Russia, and that President Bush pressed his Russian counterpart on the issue. If a comprehensive follow-up program is instituted to ensure that President Putin's pledge not to have Russia backslide into totalitarianism is fully realized, the U.S. can help contribute to one of the great political achievements of modern history -- the establishment of a democratic system of government in a land that has tragically known little but authoritarian and totalitarian rule.


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