How to deal with Russia – a new approach required
Be critical, not hypocritical
Western leaders should be much readier to criticise Russia
The Economist: Dec 9th 2010
AFTER more than a decade with Vladimir Putin in charge, few can be sanguine about Russia’s direction. Its democracy is a sham. Strong growth may have raised living standards, but its dependence on oil and gas exports often makes its economy resemble that of the Soviet Union. Corruption has become so pervasive that it undermines even the functioning of the state. Above all, the rule of law is absent, as will be seen again on December 15th when a Russian judge is expected to sentence Mikhail Khodorkovsky to another term in prison. The true crime of Mr Khodorkovsky, an unlovely oil oligarch who fell out with Mr Putin in 2003, is that his present jail term is about to expire.
For a time optimistic Russians thought that modernisation might be possible without big political changes. But this hope has turned out to be vain. The political system itself has fostered the growth of organised crime and corruption, which even endangers lives: as American diplomatic cables released on WikiLeaks note, the Kremlin is at the centre of a virtual mafia state. This means that reforms in Russia cannot happen without a shake-up of the country’s system (see article).
What can the West do? First of all, it should stop striking cosy deals that appear to treat Russia as just another normal European country. The Kremlin gains in authority from such pandering. Clearly Western leaders must talk to Russia, as a sizeable nuclear power, a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council and a country with interests in its neighbourhood. But they should do so as a matter of realpolitik, rather as they did with the old Soviet Union, and not pretend that the Kremlin is taking Russia in the right direction.
Some say the West cannot have much effect on Russia, and so should not even try. Its influence is certainly more limited than in the 1990s, when Russia needed financial help. Yet the Kremlin and the elites crave Western recognition of their legitimacy. Russia is proud to be in the G8 and G20 groups of big economies. It trumpets its membership of the Council of Europe and the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe; it wants to join both the OECD rich-country club and the World Trade Organisation. High-ranking officials and politicians are especially sensitive because many have property in the West; they stash their money in Switzerland; they visit London and New York; their children go to Western schools.
So the West has more influence in Russia than it sometimes realises. That is why the reluctance of many European leaders, in particular, to express criticism of the regime and of its human-rights abuses is so regrettable. There are countless examples of such pusillanimity over the years: a refusal to speak out against the war in Chechnya; a silence over the jailing of Mr Khodorkovsky and theft of Yukos’s assets; France’s decision even after the Georgia war to sell Russia Mistral-class assault ships; most recently, the failure of British ministers to complain about the suspicious death in jail of Sergei Magnitsky, a lawyer representing a London-based investor, who had uncovered a massive fraud by Russian officials.
The Russia/China syndrome
Russians sometimes head off criticism by accusing the West of double standards, noting that China is seldom attacked for its autocratic abuses. One answer is that Western leaders should be more critical of China as well: its refusal to allow the dissident Liu Xiaobo or any of his family to collect the 2010 Nobel peace prize this week shows its contempt for human rights. But the bigger point is that Russia does not want to be compared to China. It claims to measure itself against European standards—and Western leaders should judge it accordingly.
Nobody would suggest that relations with Moscow be broken off or frozen. Important diplomatic business has to be done with the Russians, whether over nuclear weapons and ballistic-missile defence or Iran and Afghanistan. It was right for the Obama administration to try to “re-set” relations with the Kremlin. It was right for Poland and the EU to hold separate summits with Russia this week. It is right for America’s Senate to ratify the New START nuclear-weapons treaty. It may even be right for the EU to consider, warily, the possibility of visa-free travel, the Russians’ highest current priority.
What is wrong is to believe that any of these would become impossible were the West to subject the Kremlin to tougher criticism. Fear of upsetting the Russians, whose help they wanted over Iran, led Western political leaders to bite their tongues this year. But long experience shows that the Russians simply pocket concessions and pursue their own interests anyway. Meanwhile, liberals inside Russia feel bitter about a lack of outside support for their own strictures. The West should be more honest—and more critical. And ultimately that would be good for Russia too.