Daily Archives: July 2, 2009

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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Filed under Barack Obama, Dmitry Medvedev, Russia, US foreign policy, Vladimir Putin

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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Filed under human rights, Russia, Russian-American relations, US foreign policy

Russia and the pitfalls of realism

My article on Russia and the “realists,” partly a rejoinder to Anatol Lieven’s broadside against pro-Western Russian liberals in opposition to the current regime, appears in The Weekly Standard online.

The target of Lieven’s vitriolic screed, published in The National Interest online, is this Washington Post op-ed by four leading liberal Russian policy analysts — Lev Gudkov of the Levada Center (Russia’s leading independent polling firm), Igor Klyamkin of the Liberal Mission Foundation, Georgy Satarov of the Indem Foundation, and Lilia Shevtsova, a senior associate at the Carnegie Moscow Center.  Actually, Lieven’s piece is not so much a screed as a smear.  He outrageously distorts Shevtsova’s record with out-of-context quotes to suggest that she is callously oblivious to the welfare of common Russians and devoutly supportive of U.S. policy.  In another passage I did not have the space to address in my article, he writes that “‘democracy’ as it was practiced under the Yeltsin administration [was] praised by some of the authors, and adds:

Georgy Satarov was, in fact, a top official in Yeltin’s political machine with direct responsibility for some of the undemocratic practices of that administration.

Satarov was an advisor to Yeltsin in 1994-97 and served as the President’s liaison to political parties.   I have no idea whether he was personally involved in any “undemocratic practices”, but this sounds a lot like guilt by association.  Particularly since Lieven does not see fit to mention that his main target, Shevtsova, has repeatedly said that the dismantling of Russia’s newborn democracy began under Yeltsin.

“Money quote” from my article:

Lieven finds something “a bit nauseating” in the allegedly knee-jerk pro-Western sympathies of Russian liberals. But that seems a much more fitting description for the actions of a Western pundit who, in the heat of debate, brands his Russian opponents enemies of their country–in a country where such a label poses real risks, not of prosecution but of “unofficial” harassment and even violence. (A Russian translation of Lieven’s article was promptly posted online.)

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Filed under foreign policy, Russia