In May 1988, President Reagan traveled to Moscow for a summit with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. When he became president, Reagan had called the Soviet Union the “evil empire,” but at the time of his historic trip its leader was a personal friend. Reagan didn’t allow his friendship with Gorbachev to overshadow his human rights agenda. Speaking in Helsinki two days before entering the Soviet Union, Reagan proclaimed: “There is no true international security without respect for human rights. . . . The greatest creative and moral force in this new world, the greatest hope for survival and success, for peace and happiness, is human freedom.”
In Moscow, Reagan echoed this theme at a luncheon at the American ambassador’s residence with nearly one hundred Soviet human rights activists. Reagan ordered that the ambassador’s finest silverware and linens be used to symbolically underscore his respect for the activists, the same as he would accord to Gorbachev.
Reagan’s dual-track diplomacy produced results. A few years later, many of his lunch guests occupied positions of authority in a democratizing Russia, a change that had national security implications. Although Russia still possessed thousands of nuclear weapons, its intention to use them against the United States greatly diminished as democratic and market institutions took hold.
Like Gorbachev and Reagan in 1988, Presidents Vladimir Putin and George W. Bush have a budding friendship, one that has fostered U.S.-Russian cooperation on important strategic matters such as anti-terrorism. Yet there’s a disturbing difference. Some of the same people who attended Reagan’s luncheon are again fighting for basic human rights and democratic practices in Russia—and Bush seems indifferent to their fate. Putin’s backsliding on democracy can no longer be ignored. The Russian leader has overseen a war in Chechnya marked by summary executions, rape, indiscriminate bombing of villages, and the inhumane treatment of prisoners of war.
The two largest national television networks do Putin’s bidding, and his government and its surrogates have now gained control of NTV, Russia’s third-largest TV network and the only station truly critical of Putin.
Print journalists reporting the “wrong” news about Chechnya have either been intimidated, arrested, or pushed into exile. Oleg Panfilov, head of the Center for Journalism in Extreme Situations, says, “The number of criminal cases opened against journalists in three years of Vladimir Putin’s rule is more than the number during the entire 10 years of Boris Yeltsin’s regime.”
There is more unnerving evidence of Putin’s slide toward authoritarianism. The State Security Service, whose budget is dramatically rising, increasingly harasses human rights activists, environmental leaders, and religious groups. Recently, the Russian government expelled the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe from Chechnya, terminated its agreement with the U.S. Peace Corps, and refused reentry into Russia to American Irene Stevenson, director of the AFL-CIO’s Solidarity Center in Moscow. The government has even interfered in electoral politics, removing opposition candidates from the ballot and preventing incumbents from seeking reelection in various regions of the country. Putin didn’t personally orchestrate all these democratic rollbacks, but he also has done nothing to reverse them. The battle over democracy within Russia will largely be won or lost internally. Fortunately, in poll after poll, Russians continue to value democratic ideals and practices. But the Bush administration cannot continue to sit on the sidelines.
Amazingly, it has proposed drastic cuts in the amount of democratic assistance earmarked for Russia next year on the grounds—ironic in light of recent evidence—that Russian democracy is firmly enough established. Bush’s stance is perplexing. His new national security doctrine declares the promotion of liberty abroad a U.S. priority. Tell that to Russian human rights activists, who feel alienated by the lack of U.S. encouragement.
But democratic activists in Russia need more than words of support. They also need continued U.S. financial and technical help. At a minimum, budgets for democracy assistance, already minuscule, cannot be reduced further. Cutting assistance now, moreover, would send a terrible message about U.S. staying power, not only to democrats in Russia but to those in Afghanistan, Iraq, Uzbekistan, and other countries.
Congress also has a role to play. Last year, the House and Senate overwhelmingly approved, and Bush signed into law, the Russian Democracy Act, which establishes a minimum for democratic assistance to Russia. Budget cutters in the administration have found creative ways to meet these minimal thresholds by calling programs such as high school exchanges “democracy assistance.” This sleight of hand must not become law.
Furthermore, in a major report on U.S.-Russian relations a few years ago, Representative Christopher Cox called for increased engagement “of the Russian people, not just the Russian government.” Now more than ever, Cox and the other authors of this congressional study need to reaffirm their recommendations.
Obviously, President Bush and his foreign policy team are rightly focused on the war with Iraq. Yet they cannot allow past victories to slip away while pursuing new ones. A return of dictatorship in Russia, a country armed with thousands of nuclear weapons, would present a much greater threat than the current set of tyrants now threatening U.S. security. To maintain U.S. credibility on issues of democracy and to encourage those within Russia dedicated to the cause of democracy, the Bush administration has to find a way to work constructively with Putin without ignoring Russian society. A good way to start might be a luncheon at the American ambassador’s residence in Moscow.