Five Big Questions on Russia
1. What's the real deal on the elections—first the parliamentary vote last December, then the March 4 presidential poll?
Polls put Putin's approval level at about 50 percent in December, 60 percent going into the presidential vote, and disapproval at about 22 percent. These are numbers that most Western leaders would crave, and, despite predictably dire reports of ballot-stuffing and other irregularities, they are reflected in the reported tallies. A thought: If the Putin administration installed the close-circuit cameras at polling booths, why on earth would it allow allegations of ballot stuffing to be caught on film?
Much was made of candidates such as Yabloko's Grigory Yavlinsky being prevented from running; but Mr. Yavlinsky has been around for the 20 years of post-communist history, and has failed miserably to create a liberal opposition coalition, or indeed a level of support to ensure consistent representation of his bloc in the Duma.
2. What of Kremlin attacks on election monitors and protestors?
First, the monitors: the polling-observer organization, Golos, has received some $9 million in Western funding, including from the National Democracy Institute and the International Republican Institute, since 2000. One cannot resist asking the question: What would be the reaction in the United States to a Moscow-funded NGO monitoring and commenting upon elections in this country? And one further thought: in Egypt, our Mid East ally, foreign-influenced monitors were arrested; in Russia, the attacks were verbal.
Second, the protestors: there have been mass protests in Moscow. The numbers have probably been under-reported by the authorities. This is a time-honored practice among authorities everywhere. There have also been protests in recent months in London and New York (Occupiers) and Tel Aviv (housing costs). The treatment of the protestors in Moscow has been much more akin to that accorded in these places than in, again, Cairo. In fact, one might ask whether it would have been better to be a demonstrator on the streets of Moscow or in Oakland, California?
3. But are these elections not symptomatic of a setback for Russian democracy, rather than of progress?
Think of this: in December, a ruling party favored by the Kremlin leadership was rebuffed by voters. In a sense, this could be compared to a U.S. mid-term election, where the ruling party typically fares poorly; it's a wake-up call of sorts. Why see the December vote in Russia any differently—and if elections are rigged, why did the powers that be allow this outcome?
And speaking of progress, consider the continuum of Russia's 20-year, post-Soviet history, and compare the recent events with the 1990s. That was the era of the great pro-West "reformer" Boris Yeltsin, whose major contributions to Russia's democratic advancement were to bomb a democratically elected parliament and then to steal an election in which, just weeks before the vote, his support was in the single-digit percentages.
According to a recent New York Times article ("For Struggling Russians, Fear of Return to Hardship of 90s Fuels Support for Putin," Michael Schwirtz, March 4), recent memory weighs heavily for Russian voters, especially those outside Moscow and St. Petersburg (that vast land mass described by Muscovites as "the rest of Russia").
4. Why is the bar set so high for Russia?
Russia is just 20 years distant from not one, but three cataclysmic transitions—political (from communism); military (from being a nuclear superpower); and economic (from a centralized economy). After the economic disaster of the Yeltsin years (let us remember that the so-called oligarchs first burst upon the scene in those 1990s), even Putin's sternest critics allow that he has brought an environment of stability, albeit an imperfect one. The thought also occurs: How serene and stable was the democratic polity of the United States in 1800, some 20 years after the War of Independence?
5. How can the United States and the West best deal with Russia under Putin II?
We should stop meddling in Russia's internal affairs and trajectory. Let us be honest: our anti-Putin animus is driven by the fact that he is not the good pro-Western sport that Dmitri Medvedev has tried to be. It is not a reaction to his domestic policies. If this were the yardstick, then surely our secretary of state and relevant ambassadors would be as self-righteously vocal in Beijing and Riyadh as our ambassador is in Moscow. So, we should curb criticism of Russia on human rights as long as we continue to give free passes to "allies" such as China and Saudi Arabia, both of whom have appalling records.
We should recognize that Russia has legitimate interests in an extended global region—from the Middle East to North Korea—that is far more extensive, and perilous, than the one we inhabit.
If we are smart, we will build business and commerce ties. With Russia finally admitted to the World Trade Organization [WTO], we should repeal the ludicrously anachronistic 1974 Jackson-Vanik Amendment, an act of Congress that punished the Soviet Union (not Russia) for restricting Jewish emigration. This legislation undermines our own interests, in restricting trade, and may actually place us in violation of WTO obligations. We shall do all this in the awareness of Russia's potential to move up from its present position on the fringe of the world's top 10 economies. Writing recently in The Globalist, Goldman Sachs's Jim O'Neill, who is credited with coining the acronym BRICs [Brazil, Russia, India, and China], said:
"While Russia does have serious challenges, it also has the potential to have a higher GDP per capita than the other BRICs-and even higher than all other European countries……[to accomplish this] Russia does not need dramatic growth rates. It just needs to avoid crises. If it were to achieve this, its GDP could overtake that of Italy as soon as 2017, and in the decade from 2020 to 2030 steadily sweep past France, the UK and ultimately Germany."
Russia is a country with a highly educated populace, especially in mathematics and the sciences (are we listening, America?), with what O'Neill describes as "one of the best national technology policies in the world—with the raw intellectual talent to make it happen."
In short, we should tone down the rhetoric and sharpen the reset button, to make sure it is calibrated to operate in the areas that advance a bilateral relationship well worth the cultivating.