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Former Russian PM: Obama’s ‘reset’ with Moscow is good for Putin, bad for human rights

The Obama administration is ignoring, and thereby enabling, the Russian government’s gross abuse of human rights and its gutting of the country’s  democracy, according to Russia’s former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov. "We have no democracy at all. We don’t have any future of a democratic state. Everything has been lost, everything has been taken from ...

VLADIMIR RODIONOV/AFP/Getty Images
VLADIMIR RODIONOV/AFP/Getty Images

The Obama administration is ignoring, and thereby enabling, the Russian government's gross abuse of human rights and its gutting of the country's  democracy, according to Russia's former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov.

"We have no democracy at all. We don't have any future of a democratic state. Everything has been lost, everything has been taken from the people by the authorities," Kasyanov said in a wide ranging interview with Foreign Policy. "The power has replaced all institutions ... like Parliament, like independent judiciary, like free media, etc. That's already obvious for everyone."

The former Russian head of government, who was ousted by current Prime Minister Vladimir Putin in 2004, is on a mission this week to send a two-fold message to U.S.-based Russia watchers: that the upcoming elections next year in Russia will not be free and fair, and that the "reset" policy of the Obama administration has wrongly caused the United States to abandon its role as a vocal critic of Russian democratic and human rights abuses.

The Obama administration is ignoring, and thereby enabling, the Russian government’s gross abuse of human rights and its gutting of the country’s  democracy, according to Russia’s former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov.

"We have no democracy at all. We don’t have any future of a democratic state. Everything has been lost, everything has been taken from the people by the authorities," Kasyanov said in a wide ranging interview with Foreign Policy. "The power has replaced all institutions … like Parliament, like independent judiciary, like free media, etc. That’s already obvious for everyone."

The former Russian head of government, who was ousted by current Prime Minister Vladimir Putin in 2004, is on a mission this week to send a two-fold message to U.S.-based Russia watchers: that the upcoming elections next year in Russia will not be free and fair, and that the "reset" policy of the Obama administration has wrongly caused the United States to abandon its role as a vocal critic of Russian democratic and human rights abuses.

"We would like our friends in the West, in Europe and the United States, those who are interested in a democratic Russia… we would like these friends just to open their mouths," Kasyanov said, explaining that he will meet with academics and experts at the German Marshall Fund, the Council on Foreign Relations, Columbia University, and other places. He neither sought nor was granted any meetings with U.S. government officials.

Kasyanov said that he supports the substantive aspects of President Obama’s reset policy, such as cooperation on non-proliferation, but that a parallel track should be established to simultaneously exert pressure on Russian leadership to adhere to basic standards when it comes to human rights and freedom of expression.

"I would wish the reset process would become a little bit more principled, rather than closing its eyes to everything that’s going on Russia in the sphere of public life and in the sphere of civil society," he said. "You shouldn’t just change your principles, the values your government is standing on."

He said that U.S. diplomats at various levels of the Obama administration are ignoring negative trends in Russia in the hope of avoiding even minor confrontations with the Kremlin that might upset the warming of bilateral ties.

"They just don’t criticize anything, they don’t produce any reports on any unacceptable developments… It’s not principled, now it looks like the administration closes it eyes on anything that’s going on in Russia," he said.

Right now, independent organizations are not allowed to participate in elections and virtually no new political group has been allowed to register itself as a recognized entity since 2004, according to Kasyanov. There is undue pressure on Russian non-governmental groups, such the arrest and trial of organizers who displayed a controversial art exhibit at the Moscow’s Andrei Sakharov Community Center, a case that is now being referred to the European Court of Human Rights.

France and Germany are meeting with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev on such issues, but they are operating under the illusion that there could be some significant break between him and Putin on such issues, according to Kasyanov.

"What we need is just general support from the West… We need moral support," he said. "Right now, [Russian citizens] feel that Americans have just given up on Russia, that they are not interested at all."

Kasyanov dismissed the working group on human rights being led by the NSC’s Mike McFaul and the Kremlin’s Vladislav Surkov. McFaul explained the Obama administration’s approach to Russian human rights in October 2009, saying, "We came to a conclusion that we need a reset in this respect too and we should give up the old approach that had been troubling Russian-American partnership."

"This Commission blah blah blah discussing human rights, that’s imitation, that is not useful operation. That shows to Russians that the U.S. government has chosen a different path, not human rights and democracy. It’s absolutely the wrong thing to do," Kasyanov said.

As for his take on the relationship between Medvedev and Putin, who some see as increasingly divergent on key issues, he explained, "Their relations are very simple, boss and senior assistant who temporarily occupies the position of president of the country."

When asked if he thinks Putin will run for President in 2012, he said, "I wouldn’t say ‘run,’ just step in."

UPDATE: A State Department officials confirms that Kasyanov was offered a meeting with Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Dan Russel, but that the meeting didn’t happen due to scheduling issues.

Josh Rogin covers national security and foreign policy and writes the daily Web column The Cable. His column appears bi-weekly in the print edition of The Washington Post. He can be reached for comments or tips at josh.rogin@foreignpolicy.com.

Previously, Josh covered defense and foreign policy as a staff writer for Congressional Quarterly, writing extensively on Iraq, Afghanistan, Guantánamo Bay, U.S.-Asia relations, defense budgeting and appropriations, and the defense lobbying and contracting industries. Prior to that, he covered military modernization, cyber warfare, space, and missile defense for Federal Computer Week Magazine. He has also served as Pentagon Staff Reporter for the Asahi Shimbun, Japan's leading daily newspaper, in its Washington, D.C., bureau, where he reported on U.S.-Japan relations, Chinese military modernization, the North Korean nuclear crisis, and more.

A graduate of George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs, Josh lived in Yokohama, Japan, and studied at Tokyo's Sophia University. He speaks conversational Japanese and has reported from the region. He has also worked at the House International Relations Committee, the Embassy of Japan, and the Brookings Institution.

Josh's reporting has been featured on CNN, MSNBC, C-Span, CBS, ABC, NPR, WTOP, and several other outlets. He was a 2008-2009 National Press Foundation's Paul Miller Washington Reporting Fellow, 2009 military reporting fellow with the Knight Center for Specialized Journalism and the 2011 recipient of the InterAction Award for Excellence in International Reporting. He hails from Philadelphia and lives in Washington, D.C. Twitter: @joshrogin

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