Argument

The Kremlin Kowtow

Why have Western leaders and intellectuals gone soft on Russia's autocracy?

Astakhov Dmitry/AFP/Getty Images
Astakhov Dmitry/AFP/Getty Images

At a recent meeting with Russian liberals in Moscow, a well-known European intellectual started trying to convince them that, as he put it, "Russia is not a dictatorship these days. [President Dmitry] Medvedev is trying to liberalize the system, and with time Russia will become a democracy. You shouldn’t try to hurry things." Not surprisingly, this advice provoked consternation among an audience that had expected at least some encouragement from Continental liberals.

At a conference last month in Berlin, I witnessed another example of this divide. When I started to raise the question of democratic standards in Western-Russian relations, I was interrupted by another Western attendee. "You irritate us," he said. "International relations are not about values; they are about power!" If he is right, Russian liberals will have to reconsider their expectations about the Western opinion-leaders they have long counted on for moral support and understanding.

A consensus seems to be growing among Western policymakers and intellectuals that Russia is not ready for liberalism and that there are even certain advantages to dealing with the illiberal political order built by Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. This may be why Western policy toward Russia has only served to shore up the Russian powers that are pursuing anti-Western interests. The results could be catastrophic — not merely for the activists who are working to make Russia a free country, but for the moral authority of those in the West who preach liberty but practice something quite different.

The U.S. "reset button" policy demonstrates this paradox nicely. The United States, of course, needs to have a dialogue with Russia on security issues, including arms control. But turning a nuclear arms pact into the main item on the agenda only reveals how reluctant both sides are to discuss the real issues at stake — the fundamental political differences between the two societies. Instead, Moscow and Washington revive ghosts of the past and use a Cold-War era mechanism to try to imitate cooperation. In the end, the U.S.-Russian security dialogue will do little to help President Barack Obama accomplish his goals of reining in an aggressive Iran, ending the war in Afghanistan, and advancing a nonproliferation regime. Instead, it will work in the Kremlin’s favor, bolstering Russia’s great-power status and making it easier to prop up the current authoritarian system.

The European Union’s policy on Russia is also helping to maintain the Russian status quo, buying Russian energy resources and raw materials, and helping to finance Russia’s oligarch class and strengthen the political elite. Having accepted Russia into European institutions — the Council of Europe in particular — European leaders try not to notice that Russia’s system does not conform to the very principles these organizations are designed to promote. One could get the impression that, for the sake of advancing their economic interests, European governments have decided not to make an issue out of these principles, convincing themselves that Russia is simply not ready for them yet.

Some Western leaders have no qualms about openly legitimizing the Russian regime. Gerhard Schroeder, who now serves on the board of the Gazprom-led Nord Stream pipeline project, is just the most well-known example of how morally flexible Western leaders can be for the right price. The former German chancellor behaves as Russia’s world envoy, defending the Kremlin’s policies with such enthusiasm that Germans have started to joke, "The parrot sitting on his shoulder speaks with a Russian accent." Another of Putin’s friends is Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, the Kremlin advocate who long since seems to have stopped caring about his own reputation. And then there are France’s leaders. In his time, former French President Jacques Chirac did not allow what he called "little" European countries to criticize Putin at EU-Russia summits. Chirac even awarded Putin France’s highest decoration — the insignia of Grand Croix of the Légion d’Honneur. He did it secretly, not wanting to infuriate the French public.

Chirac’s successor, Nicolas Sarkozy, not only thinks it proper to congratulate the Kremlin on manipulated elections, but actually allows the Kremlin to manipulate him politically. In August 2008, when France held the EU presidency, Sarkozy pretended not to notice that Moscow wasn’t fulfilling two key provisions of the Medvedev-Sarkozy plan to settle the Russian-Georgian conflict: withdrawing Russian troops and allowing international discussion on the final status of Georgia’s breakaway regions. This gave the Russian elite further reason to see the European Union as an organization it could string along or simply ignore.

Key to the European policy toward Russia is Germany — and just because Schroeder isn’t in power doesn’t mean Schroederization is at an end. Previous generations of German leaders did business with the Soviet Union, but they at least tried to bring change — or dreamed about it. One gets the impression that the current German elite, on the other hand, is hoping only to avoid change in Putin’s Russia. Although the East Germany-raised Chancellor Angela Merkel was once known as a critic of Russia’s undemocratic tendencies, her government has expanded its economic cooperation with Russia as the German economy has slumped, seeking deals in the shipping and automotive sectors. Germany’s decision to abandon a value-based approach to Russia has encouraged the European Union’s Russia policy to be equally "pragmatic" — focused on maintaining the status quo, in other words.

True, when some Western leaders come to Moscow they make a point of meeting human rights activists or the moderate opposition. "They ask us how they can help us. We explain that they should raise the question of human rights and democracy when talking to Russian leaders," says Arseny Roginski of the human rights group Memorial. "But after that, usually nothing happens."

Western intellectuals are even more prone to the Kremlin’s enticements than the politicians. They battle for the honor of taking part in the Valdai Club — a series of regularly arranged meetings with Russian leaders. At these meetings, prominent attendees have been known to put preapproved questions to the Russians, playing the latter part in the Kremlin-orchestrated show. "Mister prime minister … you are a democrat!" exclaimed a leading French intellectual at the meeting with Putin when he was still president. "You are really a liberal!" declared a well-known German expert at the meeting with Medvedev.

Experts from the European Council on Foreign Relations recently transmitted the Kremlin’s ideas to Western audiences in the essay collection, What Does Russia Think?, which included little in the way of critical assessment, instead simply rehashing justifications for authoritarianism and Moscow’s geopolitical ambitions. Leading Kremlin spin doctor Gleb Pavlovsky argued in the afterword, "The consensus that Putin has created in Russia … is a value-based reality. It is based on the possibility of a free life in a secure environment — something that Americans take for granted." Regretfully, the European experts had no response to this assertion. Does that mean they agree?

Other intellectuals take part in Kremlin-organized forums to discuss new standards for democracy and Russia’s contribution to their development. One such forum took place under Medvedev’s aegis in Yaroslavl last autumn. The French and Spanish prime ministers, François Fillon and José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, respectively, who attended the event, clearly had no real idea what was going on, but their presence raised the event’s prestige. Among those taking part in the forum were Western intellectual gurus such as Alvin Toffler, Immanuel Wallerstein, and Fareed Zakaria — who should certainly know better than to give their names to an event that suggests any positive  link between "Russia" and "democracy."

One influential European leader, Robert Cooper, the E.U. director-general for external and politico-military affairs, does not shy from discussing democracy with the Russian political elite. In an interview with the pro-Kremlin Russian Institute he concluded, "Sometimes I think that the word ‘democracy’ becomes problematic. I would prefer to talk about responsible, open government that defends the rights of nations … but has enough legitimacy to use tough administrative measures when there is a need for them." Such an understanding of democracy is exactly what the current Russian government is looking for.

Russia’s reform-minded forces have long since stopped calling on the West to help advance democracy in Russia. They understand that transforming Russia is a job for Russian society itself. But reform-minded Russians expect the West at least to avoid holding back change by supporting the authoritarian forces that would suppress it. Prominent Russian human rights activists and liberals like Sergei Kovalev, Garry Kasparov, and Grigory Yavlinsky, long considered pro-Western voices, have recently become critics of the West’s increasingly accommodating policies toward Russia. One might say that these voices are just a small minority of Russian society. But if the West loses this pro-Western minority, it will lose Russia altogether.

So what would a more principled Russia policy entail? Western leaders must keep liberal and democratic principles in mind while dealing with the Russian elite. They must be wary of the latest fairy tales about "modernization," avoid naively spreading the Kremlin’s ideas, and try to understand what is actually taking place inside the Russian system, which is showing signs of serious instability and degradation and may soon become a challenge for the West.

At the moment, there are no hints that the West is ready to make even these minimal efforts. This begs the question: How can Western civilization resolve its own internal problems with democracy if it abandons its mission of promoting liberty?

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