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Russian Realities

Author: Stephen Sestanovich, George F. Kennan Senior Fellow for Russian and Eurasian Studies
November 20, 2003
The Washington Post

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In the last decade it became a commonplace of U.S. diplomacy to criticize a foreign government by saying that some outrageous action it had taken would not sit well with global investors. Obviously the world's superpower can't take on all the hard issues, so why not get Moody's to help us out?

The Bush administration continues to treat the jailing of Russian billionaire Mikhail Khodorkovsky in this spirit, by fretting aloud about its impact on business confidence. White House and State Department officials think they can't be totally silent as Russia takes an authoritarian turn, but they don't want to jeopardize President Vladimir Putin's support on front-burner national security problems.

Unfortunately, markets can't and won't do the work of policy. In a battle over who owns the biggest and choicest assets of the Russian economy, Putin and his entourage aren't swayed by short-term swings in stock prices; they're playing for bigger stakes. And Western businessmen don't care whether the oil company they invest in is controlled by the Russian state or by (Putin's term) an "appointed billionaire." They may even prefer the former. The billionaire's tenure, we now know, can be uncertain.

For the U.S. government, the Khodorkovsky affair is not about corporate governance but about whether Russia's political system is moving toward the Western mainstream. Were Putin simply an aggressive trust-buster, insisting that the deals giving Russia's oligarchs their wealth be reexamined, he could credibly claim the mantle of Teddy Roosevelt. But clapping a critic and rival in jail puts him more in the tradition of Leonid Brezhnev -- or Robert Mugabe.

Bush administration officials have convinced themselves that these events are part of a long, slow transition from communism, whose meaning won't be clear for years -- so don't bother about them. Maybe, but sometimes history's milestones come bunched together. Russia's next big one could be just weeks away, in the parliamentary elections of Dec. 7.

Not so long ago, this round of elections was expected to mark a major reverse for the Communist Party. Now it looks as though if anyone is put out of business, it will be Russia's only genuinely democratic and reformist parties, the Union of Right Forces and Yabloko. Deprived of Khodorkovsky's contributions, forced to campaign under an absurd media law designed to block coverage of Putin's critics, these parties hover just above the 5 percent minimum needed to get seats in the new parliament. Seeing their weakness, Putin's camp is trying to finish them off -- and the possibility of a phony vote count cannot be excluded.

The Bush administration may wish it weren't so, but whether Russian democrats are swept off the national political stage could depend on how Putin reads foreign reaction to the Khodorkovsky affair. Rather than expecting a pass, he ought to fear that his democratic bona fides are in doubt -- and need to be revalidated. Putin doesn't like criticism, but because international legitimacy matters to him, he doesn't ignore it.

Bush is rightly proud of the Russian-American relationship that he and Putin have created. The two of them have shown that cooperation between Moscow and Washington serves both sides' national interests. They have done so in part by ignoring disagreements over peripheral issues, focusing instead on major strategic objectives.

Yet the Bush administration has over-learned two of the lessons of its success. It seems to believe that Russian domestic politics don't affect Russian-American relations -- that only Putinmatters, and he'll always deliver. In Moscow in the past year, however, the biggest boosters of cooperation with Washington have been the same figures who were the biggest losers in the past month: Mikhail Khodorkovsky, now in jail, and Alexander Voloshin, the ousted presidential chief of staff. If Bush thinks this change is of no consequence, let him ask his staff to show him a sampling of what the new crowd has said about the United States. He won't like it.

The Bush administration has clearly concluded that the only way to get results with Russia is to keep top-tier foreign policy objectives separate from lesser issues. It wants to save its chits with Putin to win his help on Iraq, Iran and North Korea.

This approach misreads Russian calculations and underrates U.S. influence. The single most important factor that has brought Russian policy toward Iran's nuclear program closer to ours is the administration's success in bringing our European allies even closer. Russia can't take a different line without isolating itself. The same is true of North Korea: Russia will stick close to the United States because China is now even closer. Iraq is a different story: The Bush administration has not won the support of others for its policy, and Russia has felt freer to choose for itself. Putin has sometimes helped -- and sometimes let his friend Bush down badly.

The past decade showed that the United States cannot want this relationship to work more than Russia does. Bush should want Putin to be a close partner of the United States. But if the president feels he can no longer speak openly about negative trends in Russia, then a basic ingredient of a healthy and balanced Russian-American relationship has already been lost.


The writer is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and a professor of international diplomacy at Columbia University. He was U.S. ambassador at large for the former Soviet Union from 1997 to 2001.

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