Shadow Government

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Clinton in Moscow: A mixed bag

By David J. Kramer Secretary of State Hillary Clinton came away from her visit to Moscow this week with mixed results. The two big ticket items involved Iran and the human rights situation inside Russia. By all appearances, Clinton struck out on moving Russia closer to supporting sanctions against Iran should current negotiation efforts fail. ...

By , a senior fellow at Florida International University’s Steven J. Green School of International and Public Affairs.
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579105_091016_clinotonb2.jpg

By David J. Kramer

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton came away from her visit to Moscow this week with mixed results. The two big ticket items involved Iran and the human rights situation inside Russia.

By David J. Kramer

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton came away from her visit to Moscow this week with mixed results. The two big ticket items involved Iran and the human rights situation inside Russia.

By all appearances, Clinton struck out on moving Russia closer to supporting sanctions against Iran should current negotiation efforts fail. “We did not ask for anything today,” she said, in a rather stunning admission. “We reviewed the situation and where it stood, which I think was the appropriate timing for what this process entails.”

That she would not try to push Russia toward supporting sanctions is hard to believe — and, if true, frankly irresponsible. More likely, she tried and failed but was putting the best spin on it. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s comments after his meeting with Clinton clearly indicated continued Russian resistance to any sanctions push. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, never a supporter of getting tougher toward Iran, reinforced this position in comments from Beijing on Wednesday when he argued that discussing sanctions now against Iran would be “premature.”

This contrasts with comments Russian President Dmitry Medvedev made in New York last month and that he reportedly reiterated in his private meeting with Clinton on Tuesday. The Kremlin, however, has not publicly challenged either the foreign minister’s or prime minister’s contradictory comments, even though the president is ultimately in charge of Russian foreign policy (the idea that Medvedev would slap down Putin is rather laughable). Yet these conflicting messages cause confusion about who calls the shots in Moscow. Then again, perhaps the situation is very clear: it is Putin and not Medvedev (more on this in a future blog entry). What a shame, then, that Putin was in Beijing, not Moscow, during Clinton’s visit. All this is not a surprise to those of us who have been saying that Russia is unlikely at the end of the day to support tough sanctions against Iran — even in exchange for the Obama administration’s regrettable decision September 17 on missile defense (which, by the way, was handled abysmally).

In contrast to the bad news on Iran, Clinton’s comments on the human rights situation inside Russia were a pleasant surprise. In spite of her short shrift of human rights concerns in the past (recall her comments on the way to Beijing in February when she said she didn’t want those issues to “interfere” with other pressing matters), Clinton made clear the concerns of the Obama administration about the deteriorating situation inside Russia.  Her meeting with human rights and civil society activists was a very good follow-up to President Obama’s similar meeting in July. Her interview with independent radio station Ekho Moskvy and her remarks to students at Moscow State University (MGU) also touched on these issues in a strong way.

“I think all of these issues — imprisonments, detentions, beatings, killings – it is something that is hurtful to see from the outside,” Clinton said at MGU. “Every country has criminal elements, every country has people who try to abuse power, but in the last 18 months … there have been too many of the incidents,” adding that not enough was being done to “ensure no one had impunity from prosecution … I said that this is a matter of grave concern not just for the United States but for the Russian people, and not just for activists but people who worry that unsolved killings are a very serious challenge to order and the fair functioning of society,” Clinton said. In an innovative society, she observed, “people must be free to take unpopular decisions, disagree with conventional wisdom, know they are safe to peacefully challenge accepted practice and authority.”

In her interview with Ekho Mskvy, she highlighted the attacks on journalists and human rights defenders, noting they are “of such great concern. … in the last 18 months … there have been many of these incidents. … I think we want the government to stand up and say this is wrong.”

Her strong statements on these issues were especially important given an unnecessary and unfortunate situation caused by an article in the Russian newspaper Kommersant earlier in the week based on comments made by NSC Senior Director Michael McFaul suggesting that human rights concerns would receive less attention from the Obama administration. The thrust of the Kommersant article seemed out of synch with Obama’s handling of the issue in July, with Clinton’s comments this week, and with McFaul’s own passion for human rights over his career (and I’ve known him for some 16 years). Clinton stepped into the fray and allayed the concerns, at least for the time being, of those who were worry that human rights issues will fall down the list of priorities in the interest of the Obama Administration’s overall “reset” policy with Moscow. 

ALEXANDER NEMENOV/AFP/Getty Images

David J. Kramer, a former assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights, and labor, is a senior fellow at Florida International University’s Steven J. Green School of International and Public Affairs.

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