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What Will Russia Resemble after Putin?

Discussants: Nikolas Gvosdev, and Sarah E. Mendelson
Updated: February 2, 2007


Speculation has swirled over what Russian politics will resemble after President Vladimir Putin exits the Kremlin in 2008. Some question whether Russia will continue on its current course—strong government, strained relations with the West—or pursue a different, more accommodating path. The outcome has important implications for energy markets, the democratization of Moscow's "near abroad," and Russia's role in the UN Security Council. asks Sarah E. Mendelson, senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, and Nikolas Gvosdev, editor of the National Interest, to debate what a post-Putin Russia will resemble and what effect Putin's exit will have on U.S.-Russia relations.

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Sarah Mendelson Most Recent

February 2, 2007

Sarah Mendelson

We have been asked to consider what we think Russia will look like after Putin, and we have discussed what we hope will happen. I want to conclude our debate by suggesting that many of us who work with human rights defenders in Russia and have hoped democracy would take hold in Russia do so because systems that are transparent and governed by the rule of law (and not the rule of man) are better places to live for most people.

In Russia today, we find none of Franklin D. Roosevelt's "four freedoms." The Western press has focused a great deal on threats to the press and journalists in Russia, and on occasion, threats to freedom of religion. Much less observed are how Russians live in fear and how want still plagues many.

Putin's Russia should not be confused with order or stability. What do I mean by this? In one survey I coauthored with Ted Gerber of the University of Wisconsin, we found 41 percent of respondents fear arbitrary arrest by the police. In many parts of the North Caucasus, the region with the largest youth population in Russia, we have seen an enormous jump in terrorist incidents since Putin has come to power. There are many other examples of lack of order and instability. Corruption is simply an everyday part of life.

In Nick's final posting he covers a lot of ground well beyond Russia. I will address only a few of his points. He assures us he does not "hate freedom" and refers fondly to Anatol Lieven's recent Financial Times op-ed, where Lieven seems to try and bolster "mild and civilized autocracies." No one engaged in either democracy promotion or human rights argues that the right to vote is the be-all or end-all. Democracy promotion has come under a lot of criticism from different sources, including from me. But no one argues that freedom is mainly or exclusively about voting or that this is the main focus of such work. This is clichéd caricature.

I agree the language of either democracy or authoritarianism is not helpful as all countries live along a continuum. Political systems and indeed the concept of sovereignty are dynamic and shifting over time.

I am worried however that the dynamic in the Euro-Atlantic community is in great flux and that there is a power failure as we head toward 2008. The United States has squandered its legitimacy by derogating fundamentals of international law. Russia has been enabled in its drift toward authoritarianism. And as one European diplomat told me last week, the European Union is not a superpower, so do not expect it to act as such.

In fact, Europe is divided on Russia. In private sessions, senior European officials worry and complain that the British, the French, and the Germans do so little with respect to Russia. Several times over the last year, various parties have approached the Germans, now the presidents of the G8 [Group of Eight] and the European Union, to address a variety of issues related to Russia with little positive response.

The implications of internal policies and their bearing on national security deserve indeed more attention and research. It is an urgent matter. Which domestic policies? Socioeconomic policies, as well as human rights and counterterrorism policies. Which threats? Large populations that become disenfranchised whose needs are not met and who are hostile to their governments (many of them, yes, in dictatorships) that we support because we have some short-term gains. I tremble when I think that others hold up our relations with Saudi Arabia or Pakistan as examples of smart foreign policy.

To sum up, Nick and I do not disagree on the diagnosis; we both characterize Putin's Russia as an authoritarian state. The difference is whether and how it matters. I believe Russia's current and near-term state bode badly for U.S.-Russia relations, and that most if not all of the twenty-first century issues we face become greatly complicated by an insular, opaque, authoritarian government. I am concerned that the government in power in Russia is neither interested in nor capable of dealing with serious internal threats, as well as the transnational ones we all face. The health crises and the endemic and growing corruption are all our problems. The lack of response by the United States and Europe, read by some as an acceptance of authoritarianism in exchange for strategic cooperation, may inadvertently fuel more extremism (and terrorism) as well as encourage aggressive regional policies in Eurasia. Let's not call independent states that border Russia the "near abroad" unless absorption is something that one is advocating. The consequences of ambivalence may pose an especially worrisome bundle of additional Euro-Atlantic security concerns.

Nikolas Gvosdev February 1, 2007

Nikolas Gvosdev

First, Sarah and I do agree: There are many things that can happen inside Russia that can have quite an impact outside the country’s borders—disease being an important example. And in the long term, mature democracies usually have the best track record in coping with these challenges. But Anatol Lieven raised an important point in his January 26, 2007 op-ed in the Financial Times. Referring to Franklin D. Roosevelt’s famous “four freedoms” (of expression, of religion, from fear, from want), he noted that all four “can be present under mild and civilized autocracies (though not, of course, totalitarian systems) as well as democracies; and the last two, alas, can be absent in ill-governed, impoverished and chauvinist democracies.”

I raise this not because I hate freedom but because too often in the American discourse, we assume the choice is always going to be between the authoritarian regime and full-fledged democracy that works. I think Ian Bremmer of the Eurasia Group hit the nail on the head in his use of the "J Curve" to plot the relationship—not always complementary—between openness and stability.

And in this context, I find it very revealing to see what the Europeans do (as opposed to what they say), since, as Sarah pointed out, they are on the front lines. And while they will decry the rollback of democracy in Russia, the European Union also concluded a new visa arrangement with Russia in May 2006 that essentially grants to a broad swath of the upper and middle classes the status of “honorary Europeans” via a special multiple-entry visa (in the legalese of Article 12, “the citizens of the Russian Federation and of the European Union shall be entitled to travel within the territory of the Member States and of the Russian Federation on an equal basis with European Union and Russian citizens.”) Meanwhile, Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko, feted as the hero of the Orange Revolution, was turned down when he requested a similar arrangement for Ukraine. The European Union has greater trust that Russia’s demographic problems are less likely to be exported to Europe under Putin’s government.

Sarah noted, “When we ignore or downplay other states’ domestic policies, threats to U.S. national security increase.” I think this statement needs a great deal of qualification. Which policies? Which threats? Germany’s policies toward Scientology offend many Americans’ notions about religious freedom (and earns Germany criticism in the State Department’s annual report, not to mention the ire of big-name Hollywood stars), but is U.S. security at stake? On the other hand, very trusting British asylum policies have increased the risks we face—just as some Pakistani police methods that might not pass scrutiny here helped to crack last year’s airline plots. I worry that axioms such as this one are very much in the eye of the beholder.

A second phrase I have problems with is: “What Russia does at home is linked to what Russia does abroad.” Where I would agree is that a government that acts in untransparent, unaccountable ways on domestic policy usually has an opaque and sometimes unpredictable foreign policy.

But I have seen this line invoked when Moscow does something we don’t like, with the implication that a more democratic Russia would have acted in a different way. As I said in the first posting, I think there are certain core Russian interests that don’t change no matter who is in charge. I think we are deluding ourselves, for example, if we don’t recognize that any government in Moscow has more than a passing interest in the “near abroad.”

This is why I don’t buy into dividing the world into alliances of democracies and authoritarians. Germany and India are two of Russia’s major partners despite being two of the world’s leading democracies (and despite their ties to the United States, too). For our part, countries with whom we share both values and interests in common have tended to be our most reliable allies, such as the United Kingdom. We have often had much less success with states that share our values but not our interests—India during the Cold War and New Zealand since the ANZUS alliance was suspended both come to mind. But I would also submit that the United States has been able to forge decades-long enduring partnerships with a variety of illiberal and authoritarian governments based on shared strategic and economic interests—and not just the usual suspects in the Middle East (Saudi Arabia, the Gulf emirates, Egypt, or Jordan) but further afield—Turkey, Pakistan, Singapore, and the East Asian tigers prior to their transitions to democracy. As events have demonstrated in places like South Korea, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Indonesia, when relations are grounded in shared interests, democratic governments continue what their autocratic predecessors have begun. An illiberal, authoritarian Russia is a much harder partner; no doubt about it. But if we have common interests, we should be able to work together.

In the end, the question we need to ask is not whether the Russia that has emerged is a Russia we like—it isn’t; but whether it is a Russia we can do business with—and more importantly, whether or not the United States can achieve some of its most pressing objectives without Russian help.

Sarah Mendelson

January 31, 2007

Sarah Mendelson

Mexico 1927 and Russia 2007 are interesting comparisons and ones I had not thought of. We hear a lot of favorable references today in Russia to Augusto Pinochet and Chile, but I wonder if the Kremlin insiders are hunkering down for a long slog a la Mexico’s PRI.

But let me focus on this issue of whether U.S. foreign policy ought to be concerned with the foreign and domestic policies of other states, since I think this is an important area of disagreement and relevant to our discussion of Russia.

When we ignore or downplay other states’ domestic policies, threats to U.S. national security increase. I cannot think of a single national security issue that can be understood in a meaningful way or addressed using this divide of foreign versus domestic policy. Consider terrorism, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, disease, or environmental issues. I think this line of reasoning is hard to defend after September 11, given the role the Taliban played in harboring terrorists.

Americans should care about what happens inside Russia for numerous reasons, including their government’s ability to safely control nuclear materials (think polonium!), the continued conflict in Chechnya, and serious health issues such as a growing strain of drug resistant TB. Maybe the most important reason is that the United States is intertwined strategically and economically with Europe, and Russia’s problems are European problems. What Russia does at home is linked to what Russia does abroad.

In terms of our 2008 election, I was making an aspirational statement more than a factual one. I fear there is reluctance on the part of candidates—Democrats and Republicans alike—to even address the issue of human rights. I am suggesting that the damage done to the U.S. image abroad is so extensive, and so worrisome, that in order for Washington to restore its inspirational powers and lead globally, candidates should take strong positions on, for example, reinvigorating and upholding existing international legal frameworks, especially those that help protect Americans who serve abroad such as the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (PDF). The erosion of the “torture prohibition,” at least according to numerous retired U.S. generals, has made those serving today in the armed forces less safe. Short of that, it has left a terrible impression abroad.

I was reminded of this last week as I sat listening to four focus groups with young people in Moscow and Yaroslavl, a city about three hours northeast of Moscow. We heard people say things like: “If the U.S. doesn’t like something about a small country, it will just use force to change it.” Vietnam as well as Iraq hung in the air. We are seen now as not being able to work with other countries. As long as this is true, we cannot be a global leader.

In terms of advocating that we stop being friends with dictators when it serves short term interests, I realize I am climbing a steep hill and most will disagree. But Nick has yet to convince me that serious shared interests can be pursued without shared values. One doesn’t have to be a Francophone to suggest that the kinds of disagreements we had with France (and many other European governments) over going to war in Iraq pale by comparison with the difficulties we are going to face with Russia in the near, medium, and long term. I am not suggesting that cooperation with Russia is impossible but that the relative depth of this cooperation is colored by the values that do or do not underpin it.

Nikolas Gvosdev January 30, 2007

Nikolas Gvosdev

Sarah has put her finger on the 64,000 ruble question: Can the current governing elite look beyond their own short-term personal interests? I am struck by the deep similarities between conditions in Mexico circa 1927 and Russia eighty years later. In both cases, a strong, centralizing, authoritarian president sought ways to perpetuate his regime beyond constitutionally-mandated term limits. [Mexican President] Plutarco Elías Calles was successful in getting Mexico’s business and political elites to subordinate their individual interests, creating a ruling party (that eventually took the very suggestive style of the “Institutional Revolutionary Party”, or PRI) that was able to govern the country for seven decades—and that, at least through the 1960s, did deliver on some economic and social reforms for the Mexican people.

Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev—a possible Putin successor—is saying the right things about rebuilding Russia’s social infrastructure; he highlighted health care, for example, in his essay published in the January 25, 2007 issue of Kommersant. Russia’s tragic flaw has never been in the articulation of ambitious programs for development, but in poor implementation.

So, the three big “ifs” are: Can Putin convince the elites to accept a mechanism for anointing future presidents? Can Putin’s successors ensure a decent quality of life for the country’s citizens? Will the rising middle class be satisfied, for the foreseeable future, with “managed pluralism”?

[An interesting sidenote from Mexico’s past: Calles continued to be the “power behind the throne” for several successor presidents until President Lázaro Cárdenas cut him loose from the regime he had created and had him exiled in 1936. For “Putinism” to outlast Putin, does he have to disappear dramatically from the Russian political stage?]

But as interesting as this discussion is, we come back to a fundamental question: Why is any of this relevant to ordinary Americans?

As I said yesterday, there are some general benefits when a country is more democratic, but I think that clashing interests far more than a lack of shared values are responsible for the recent chill in U.S.-Russia relations. A more democratic Russia would still not see eye to eye with the United States on a number of pressing issues—for the same reasons that Washington and Paris, despite both being democracies, have fundamental disagreements over foreign policy.

I am far less sanguine than Sarah seems to be that elevating compliance with international human rights norms to a central organizing principle of U.S. foreign policy will produce the desired results. I think many of the 2008 Democratic presidential hopefuls, no less than their Republican counterparts, fall into the same trap Vice President Dick Cheney did last year: between “Vilnius” (holding Russia to account for its human rights practices) and “Astana” (excusing pro-American governments to secure strategic and economic concessions).

Backsliding on democracy should be a concern. But I concur with CFR President Richard N. Haass that “the principal business of American foreign policy must be the foreign policy, not the domestic policy, of others.”

Sarah MendelsonJanuary 29, 2007

Sarah Mendelson

U.S.-Russia relations have indeed suffered from over-personalized strategies, going back several administrations and regimes. But since when did Russia's political trajectory stop being an issue of importance to U.S. national security? Answer: never. In fact, it is of particular concern because the trajectory is authoritarian.

We do agree, it seems, on the chances of the post-Putin regime hanging on. That is, at least for a while. I don't expect much change in 2008. My eye is on 2012 and beyond. Here's why: A group of Kremlin insiders may get greasy, gassy, and oily living off the natural resources generously spilling forth from the ground, and the standard of living may generally improve for all, but institutional decline and dysfunction cannot be ignored indefinitely. Unless there is significant change in how the Kremlin governs, and much more investment in major public institutions, this type of regime is ultimately doomed.

So another more pressing question: At what point will Russians mobilize around the many problems they face? Five years? Ten years? Fifteen? What problems? Consult any number of public opinion surveys, including ones the Center for Strategic and International Studies have overseen, and you will find anger and anxiety about a health care system massively underfunded, especially in light of the country's demographic crisis. You will hear about a police force that Russians think abuses more than it protects; an army that is known for beating its own. At some point, in between skiing trips abroad and shopping trips at home, the growing middle class will begin to worry that the bargain—authoritarianism for "order"— has too high a price tag or worse, that it is false advertising and there is no order.

In the short term, a post-Putin Russia will resemble what we have today, with an ever- shrinking public political space and institutions that fall into ever greater decline. Putin's exit is only half the equation in the U.S.-Russia relationship. Who is sitting in the White House is as important, if not more so. I can't remember a U.S. presidential field so crowded, and so unlikely to be dominated by issues related to Russia.

But I can imagine a U.S. policy that—as part of our own regime change—makes compliance with international human rights and humanitarian law more of a U.S. domestic and foreign policy issue. Whoever is in the White House, Republican or Democrat, will need to do an enormous amount internationally to repair the damage caused by the Bush administration's feckless disregard for international law. This repair work should be about ending the enabling trend—the downgrading of human rights and derogation from international law that has enabled authoritarians in Russia and left human rights activists isolated.

Nikolas Gvosdev January 29, 2007

Nikolas Gvosdev

Hope springs eternal! Of late, it seems whenever the United States has issues with the domestic or foreign policies of another country, "regime change" is proffered as the solution. Of course, a change doesn't always do us good.

I remember fondly the atmosphere in Washington at the time of the 2005 German elections. We were told once Angela Merkel—almost always described as "pro-American"—succeeded Gerhard Schroeder, the dastardly mastermind behind the 2003 Paris-Berlin-Moscow axis that had blocked approval of the Iraq invasion in the Security Council—not only would Berlin endorse U.S. actions vis-à-vis Iraq and Iran, but also would "stick it to the Russians."

Those expectations were dashed because there exists among Germany's business and political elites a broad consensus about the country's interests that no individual politician can completely override, no matter his or her personal preferences. This is especially important to keep in mind when considering what happens in Russia after 2008. Because we have so often overpersonalized politics in the former Soviet space (everything depends on [Boris] Yeltsin! [Mikhail] Saakashvili! [Vladimir] Putin! [Viktor] Yanukovych! And so on ...) we can forget that there are certain core Russian national interests that don't change whether tsar, commissar, or president sits in the Kremlin.

Would a more democratic Russia—and here I mean not staffed by persons labeling themselves as "democrats," but a government more democratically accountable to the people—be more inclined to accommodate U.S. preferences? Agree to implement punitive sanctions against Iran? Restructure its energy industry to meet our needs? And the list goes on.

Two important questions have been put before us today. The first is whether the embryonic regime that has coalesced around Vladimir Putin can survive past his formal departure from the presidency in 2008 (I give it a 70:30 chance in favor—assuming events follow a similar trajectory as they did in Mexico in the 1930s and Singapore in the early 1990s). The second is whether or not the deterioration in U.S.-Russia relations can be reversed. I think it can—if we recognize that common interests trump shared values in making policy.

But I want to argue strongly against linking the these two questions together. This is not to argue that if Russia were more democratic, there would not be a benefit to the United States. After all, governments that are open and transparent, subject to scrutiny and criticism, are much more constrained than authoritarian regimes and, in some ways, more predictable. But we should not fall into the trap that replacing Putin means empowering a Russian government prepared to accept U.S. priorities—just as we should recognize that many of the current problems in the relationship were latent even during the halcyon days of "Bill and Boris" back in the 1990s.

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