Obama in Moscow, cont’d: A strange appointment

So, we now have a bilateral presidential commision, to be coordinated by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.

It includes 13 working groups headed by corresponding high-level Russian and American officials (e.g., Health: Tatyana A. Golikova, Minister of Health, and Kathleen Sebelius, Secretary of Health and Human Services).   One of the pairs is rather eyebrow-raising (brought to my attention by Dmitry Sidorov, the Washington, DC correspondent for Kommersant, writing on EJ.ru):

Civil Society: Vladislav Surkov, First Deputy Chief of Staff, Presidential Administration, and Michael McFaul, Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for Russia , National Security Council

Say it ain’t so!  On one side, Michael McFaul, a strong opponent of Russian authoritarianism, a champion of the “color revolutions,” a passionate believer in democracy who takes pride in having been a part of Russia’s democracy movement in the 1980s and ’90s.  On the other side, Vladislav Surkov, the Kremlin’s Putin-era ideological enforcer, creator of the term “sovereign democracy” (which seems to be shorthand for “we’ll define democracy as we damn well please, and everyone else should keep their nose out of our business”) and of Nashi, the thuggish “youth movement” launched with the express purpose of thwarting grass-roots democratic activism of the kind that brought about Ukraine’s “Orange Revolution”).  The same Surkov who just recently rejected the idea that the crisis should be an incentive for the Kremlin to loosen its iron grip on political life within Russia.

Putting Surkov at the head of a commission on the civil society is a bit like putting Bernie Madoff at the head of a commission on business ethics.  Or Britney Spears at the head of a commission on marriage and the family.

At Obama’s meeting with the Russian opposition today, according to Grani.ru (in Russian), Sergei Mitrokhin of the semi-loyalist Yabloko opined that “Russian-American relations must be developed in such a way as to involve the Russian political and military elite into common projects, which will contribute to the development of democracy in our country.”  If that’s the idea here, the notion of McFaul trying to teach Surkov democracy is darkly hilarious.

Later, at the Russian-American NGO forum where Obama appeared for about half an hour, Russian participants including veteran human rights activists Ludmilla Alexeyeva, Lev Ponomarev, and Sergei Kovalev asked Obama to replace Surkov.  That, of course, would be quite a slap in the face to the Russians; it will be interesting to see how this impasse will be managed.  One has to wonder what McFaul, also present at the forum, was thinking — he must have seen the makeup of the commission ahead of time.

Kommersant‘s Sidorov believes that the Surkov appointment signifies “the triumph of ‘realism’ and, simultaneously, the rejection of the principle of support for democratic transformation and civil society in other countries.”  I hope he’s wrong.  Nonetheless, it is a rather alarming choice, seriously at odds with Obama’s pro-democracy statements in his Moscow speech.


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Obama’s Moscow speech: A-

First, there was the Cairo speech to the Muslim world.  Now, Obama speaks to Russians at the graduation ceremony of the New Economic School.

It was a very, very good speech that hit almost all the right notes.   The right amount of flattery for Russia as a “great power” and for its cultural and scientific achievements (and I’m glad that, in mentioning the great 19th Century Russian poet Alexander Pushkin, Obama resisted the temptation to claim kinship with Pushkin due to the latter’s African ancestry, as a few Russian commentators semi-facetiously predicted he might).  Recognition of Russia’s enormous sacrifice in World War II, a very big topic in Russia these days (though with a major missed opportunity to remind the audience that Russians repelled a foreign tyrant and butcher only to be re-victimized by a domestic one).

Also on the plus side: there were no apologies, no genuflection toward the official Russian point of view on NATO expansion or the missile shield.  On the contrary, Obama once against emphasized that neither is a threat to Russia.

Obama strongly reiterated America’s commitment to democracy and freedom as universal, not just American values, devoting a prominent portion of his speech to “America’s interest in democratic governments that protect the rights of their people.”

By no means is America perfect. But it is our commitment to certain universal values which allows us to correct our imperfections, to improve constantly, and to grow stronger over time. Freedom of speech and assembly has allowed women, and minorities, and workers to protest for full and equal rights at a time when they were denied. The rule of law and equal administration of justice has busted monopolies, shut down political machines that were corrupt, ended abuses of power. Independent media have exposed corruption at all levels of business and government. Competitive elections allow us to change course and hold our leaders accountable. If our democracy did not advance those rights, then I, as a person of African ancestry, wouldn’t be able to address you as an American citizen, much less a President. …

So around the world, America supports these values because they are moral, but also because they work. The arc of history shows that governments which serve their own people survive and thrive; governments which serve only their own power do not. Governments that represent the will of their people are far less likely to descend into failed states, to terrorize their citizens, or to wage war on others. Governments that promote the rule of law, subject their actions to oversight, and allow for independent institutions are more dependable trading partners. And in our own history, democracies have been America’s most enduring allies, including those we once waged war with in Europe and Asia — nations that today live with great security and prosperity.

Moreover, in discussing Russia’s “rightful place” as a great power, Obama also delivered a devastating indictment of the Putin regime’s vision of the world — the vision that has been force-fed to the Russian public for the past decade by Kremlin ideologues.

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Obama Moscow update

ObamaMedvedevPutin

So, there’s an agreement on nuclear weapons cuts.  Is that such a step of major importance today, when the once-terrifying prospect of all-out nuclear war between the Soviet Union and the United States is of far less concern in the public mind (and rightly so, I think) than a stray North Korean or Iranian missile?  Since the fall of Communism, disarmament has become a ritualistic ballet that mainly flatters the Russian ego because it makes Russia feel like a fellow superpower.  (The cuts benefit Russia in other ways as well; its nuclear arsenal is badly in need of an upgrade, and the country can ill afford a new arms race.)   Has Obama agreed to link stratetgic arms reductions to the issue of missile shield installations in Eastern Europe?  Obama says no (and his chief Russia advisor, Michael McFaul, says no even more emphatically); Medvedev seems to think he has, because discussions of “defensive weapons” are to be included in the talks.  There’s also a statement about “cooperation” on missile defense.  Whether any of this is meaningful remains to be seen.  Russian policy expert Dmitry Trenin of the Carnegie Moscow Center writes that the way out of the impasse is for the U.S. to agree to a joint missile defense with Russia, a decicion from which Trenin says “the U.S. has little to lose” even if it ultimately doesn’t work out.  The problem is that, as Trenin admits, Moscow does not want a joint ABM defense system if the U.S. also proceeds with missile shield installations in Eastern Europe.  Dead end.

There is a deal to allow the transit of U.S. weapons and military personnel across Russian territory (and airspace) to Afghanistan to help the U.S. and NATO military effort there.  As Russian military analyst Alexander Golts notes (Russian-language link), “While Moscow presented this as a concession, in reality it is obvious that the Americans’ war effort in Afghanistan ensures Russia’s security.”   Golts believes that this deal was the only useful part of the Obama-Medvedev talks, otherwise no more meaningful than (in his colorful metaphor) the chatter of extras on a movie set who must maintain the background noise of conversation.

There was, however, an interesting reference to Georgia. Continue reading

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“Just call them ‘gentlemen’”: An American expat’s advice to Obama

Mickey Berdy, an American living in Moscow where she works as a translator and interpreter, comments on the Obama visit:

“Putin” is easy to pronounce, but “Medvedev” is a mouthful for English speakers. Happily, you can avoid their last names and address them as господин президент (Mr. President) and господин премьер-министр (Mr. Prime Minister). If you’re not sure who’s in charge, don’t worry: No one here knows either. If you wind up in the same room with them, you might look in their general direction and address your comments to господа (gentlemen).

Here in Moscow, it’s hard to tell which official statements are: for internal consumption and can be ignored; for external consumption and should be noted; or blurted out on a bad hair day. So who knows what you’ll hear at the negotiating table. Heck, for all I know, you guys just crack open a couple of beers, kick back and get down to some good-natured horse-trading.

But you might hear the oft-repeated phrase, мы встали с колен (We’ve gotten up off our knees) as if Russians had crawled their way through the 1990s. I recall those years well, and I don’t remember anyone on their knees in humiliation. To the contrary, at the time, they were impressed by the aid we were giving them, especially considering that they still had all their nukes pointed at us. In any case, we gave billions to them so they could get on their feet, and now they say they are — so we’re copacetic, right? проехали (Moving right along … )

Another theme is: Нас окружают враги (We’re surrounded by enemies). This one’s easy. If it comes up, just ask: Есть у вас карта? (Have you got a map?) Then you show them that their country is one-seventh of the world’s land mass.

Go here for more.

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Latest comment on Russia: Obama, Medvedev, and human rights

Not to turn this site into full-time pimpage of my articles, but here’s the latest on Obama’s trip to Moscow and the human rights situation in Russia, from Forbes.com:

Obama goes to Moscow

And here’s Medvedev’s video blog entry on Obama’s visit and Russian-American relations:

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Mr. Obama goes to Moscow

My new RealClearPolitics.com column examines Obama’s upcoming trip and the debate between “realists” and “idealists” on Russia.

(And my other column today, in The Wall Street Journal, asks if Mr. Putin is going to Georgia.  Again.)

The Obama visit should be interesting.  Evidently, Obama is spending a lot of one-on-one time with Medvedev (who declares on his video blog today that “Today, we are united by the values of our civilization, the values of respect for human life and human rights and freedoms” — does he say this stuff with a straight face?) and a lot of time with “unofficial” activists.  On Tuesday, he breakfasts with Putin.  Obama’s remarks today suggest that his “narrative” for the Moscow trip is that he and Medvedev together will be leading their countries forward to cooperation and partnership, while Putin, who “still has a lot of sway” and keeps “one foot in the old ways of doing business”, needs to understand that the time of the old ways has passed.  Sounds like Obama’s message to Putin is, more or less, “Move out of the way, buddy, time’s up.”

Chances are, Putin is not going to like this, particularly in conjunction with the fact that Obama goes straight from breakfast with Putin to a day of meetings with representatives of unofficial Russia.  In EJ.ru, Alexander Golts writes that his conversations with “certain people who are involved in the [U.S.-Russian] negotiations in one way or another” have left with the impression that they are confident that Obama’s visit will be productive, but also extremely tense and nervous that something will go wrong.  And that “something” has a name.  According to Golts,

At one point, an impressively high-level diplomat blurted out, “What if Putin finally loses it completely and screws everything up?”

I go back and forth on how real or meaningful the rumored Putin-Medvedev rift really is, and to what extent Medvedev is really emerging as his own man (or a reformer).   We may learn a lot next week.

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Human rights and Khodorkovsky

A group of American pundits which includes people as different as William Kristol and Leon Wieseltier is appealing to Barack Obama to make democracy and human rights a priority on his Moscow visit.  Grani.ru reports (in Russian) that, according to Obama’s top Russia advisor, Michael McFaul, about half of the President’s time on his Moscow trip will be devoted to interaction with “unofficial” persons.  Specifically, nearly all of Day 2 of his three-day visit will be spent in meetings with activists, members of the business community, and youth groups (hopefully not Nashi!).   And Gazeta.ru reports that on the first day of the visit, July 6, Obama will attend a “Civic Summit” of non-governmental organizations including Memorial, Human Rights Watch, and Freedom House.  (Dmitry Medvedev is also expected to attend, though this is not officially confirmed.)   So far, this sounds like good news.

Meanwhile, a resolution urging the Russian government to dismiss the new charges against imprisoned former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky and co-defendant Platon Lebedev — a case that reeks of politics and outrageous injustice — has been introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives by U.S. Reps. James McGovern (D-Mass.)  and Frank Wolf (R-Va), co-chairmen of the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission,  and Robert Wexler (D-Fla.), chairman of the Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Europe.  A similar bipartisan resolution was submitted in the Senate earlier.

Rep. Howard Berman (D-Calif.), chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, who was in Moscow this week as head of a visiting Congressional delegation, was asked about this on Ekho Moskvy radio (where he appeared with his Russian counterpart, Konstantin Kosachev).

Berman’s reply:

I am the chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee and I have never heard of this resolution.  There is a tremendous difference between resolutions submitted by members of Congress and the laws Congress actually passes.  I would not focus on the isolated proposals of isolated members of Congress.  We should focus on what constitutes U.S. policy, what legislators enact, not the statements of some politicians.

Not only does Berman not support his colleagues’ human rights initiative; he goes out of his way to dismiss it as an insignificant and isolated political move.  Nice work, Congressman.

By the way, here is the full text of the resolution’s concluding part.

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