Fifteen years ago, when the leaders of the world’s seven leading industrialized democracies first invited Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to attend their meeting in London, they extended a hand to their faltering adversary in the hopes of bringing it into the West. It signaled the Cold War's end; by the end of that year, the Soviet Union itself no longer existed.
In this context, this week’s meeting in St. Petersburg marks a turning point: For the first time, Russia will play host as a full-fledged member of what is now the Group of 8, and not as a supplicant. It is a measure of how far Russia has come—but regrettably, also a stark reminder of how far it has to go.
For the United States and Europe, a strong relationship with Russia is essential to handling the most difficult global challenges we face. Terrorism, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, tight energy markets, climate change, the drug trade, infectious diseases, human trafficking—all these problems are more manageable when we have Russia on our side rather than aligned against it.
Yet during the past few years, cooperation has become the exception, not the norm. On a range of issues, Russian-American relations are now marked by a growing number of disagreements, and this presents challenges far beyond whether or not the St. Petersburg summit meeting will be seen as a success.
At a time when the president of the United States has made democracy a central goal of American foreign policy, Russia’s political system is becoming steadily more authoritarian. When we visited Moscow last year as chairs of a Council on Foreign Relations Task Force, no one we talked to argued that Russia was a democracy. Many feared that the roll-back of pluralism and centralization of power may not have run its course.
Despite remarkable economic growth and dramatic social transformation, Russian political institutions are not becoming either more modern or more effective, but dysfunctional and brittle. By many measures Russia seems stable, but its stability has a weak institutional base. The future of its political system is less predictable, and the country’s problems less manageable, than they should be.
There is no question that a more democratic, open, transparent Russia would be behaving differently on many issues. A more democratic Russia would be forcefully engaged in efforts to end Iran’s nuclear weapons ambitions—and it would be talking openly about the consequences of Iran’s defiance. It would not be cracking down on dissent and a free press.
It would not play host to Hamas. It would not work to kick the United States out of vital bases in Central Asia. It would not be using energy as political leverage. It would not be supporting autocrats in Belarus or undermining democrats in Georgia and Ukraine.
Given all of this, there has been a lot of controversy over whether Russia should be the chair of the G-8—which, after all, is supposed to be the world’s leading democracies—and whether there should even be a meeting at all.
We believe that it is in the U.S. national interest for Russia to be a part of the G-8 and eventually other key institutions such as the World Trade Organization. But this cannot be inclusiveness for its own sake. Inclusiveness has to be justified by results.
The summit meeting’s success cannot be measured by pomp and warm words; it must be judged by concrete results. Has Russia joined with the United States and other democratic states in warning Iran about the negative consequences of going forward with its nuclear program? Has Russia agreed to ratify the European Energy Charter (which it signed 12 years ago), so that its energy companies begin to act like commercial entities rather than instruments of state power? Has Russia dropped its effort to keep foreign governments from meeting with nongovernmental groups and opposition parties on the eve of the summit?
Then there is the 2008 question. Russia is entering a critical political phase, with parliamentary elections next year and presidential elections in 2008. America and the European Union should begin working now to make clear the criteria by which we will judge this process to be legitimate, and we should communicate this publicly and privately.
If today’s reality of Russian politics continues—with opposition candidates kept off the ballot arbitrarily, unable to access the media or raise funds; with opposition parties unable to form because of “technicalities,” or with independent domestic monitoring organizations kept out—then there is the real risk that Russia’s leadership will be seen, externally and internally, as illegitimate.
Only Russia can decide on a change of course, but other countries can help frame its choice, making clear how much is to be gained and how much has to be done.
Doing so will be a long-term effort, but it should begin now, and the place to start is by talking about it. Russia’s leaders and its people deserve to know what the world's real democracies think.
John Edwards, former Democratic vice-presidential candidate, and Jack Kemp, former Republican vice-presidential candidate, are co-chairs of the Council on Foreign Relations independent task force on U.S. policy toward Russia.
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