Just eight weeks ago I was in Moscow at a conference called, "From Fulton to Malta: How the Cold War Began and Ended."
What a difference two months make.
In DC and Moscow, it's beginning to feel like a new--if scaled-down--Cold War. Hard-liners within the Bush Administration, led by that champion of democracy, civil liberties and human rights Dick Cheney, seem to have won the day. A new tough line against Moscow is now front- page news.
Of course, Russia isn't on a path to democracy. Putin is a "small a authoritarian" who has reasserted state control over Russian television (the print press remains relatively free and politically diverse), jailed a leading oligarch (the country's assets that he looted should be confiscated, not his body) and may well alter the constitution so he can remain President for a third term beginning in 2008.
But as many writers, including (my husband) Stephen Cohen in The Nation and New America Foundation fellow Anatol Lieven in the Los Angeles Times, have argued, de-democratization began not under Putin but under Boris Yeltsin. As Lieven puts it: " The 'democracy' that Putin has allegedly overthrown was, in fact, not a real democracy at all, but a pseudo-democracy ruled over by corrupt and brutal oligarchical clans." Furthermore, he notes, "During the 1990s, the administration of Boris Yelstin, under the sway of the oligarchs and the liberal elites, rigged elections repressed the opposition and launched a bloody and unnecessary war in Chechnya--all with the support of Washington."
Highlighting the hypocrisy, in a sharp and smart comment for Truthout.com, William Fisher rightly notes how "truly grotesque" it is that Cheney would be "lecturing anyone about democracy and human rights." As Fisher, who worked for the US State Department and USAID for thirty years, puts it: "[Cheney] has dishonored these core American values in his own country...Could there be anyone less credible on subjects like democratic reform and open government?" Certainly not our very own autocratic President who has stated that he doesn't feel bound by the Congressional ban on torture and who believes in the unitary presidency, which means placing his imperial vision of the executive branch over the will of America's elected lawmakers.
Instead of counter-productive hectoring by hardliners and their chief hawk Cheney, we should be developing a cooperative relationship with a Russia that is reengaging pragmatically in the Middle East--by testing Hamas' willingness to moderate its anti-Israel militancy, and controlling Iran's nuclear weapons ambitions. As essential is the need to restart negotiations on reducing each countries' bloated nuclear arsenals. And on democracy initiatives--let Russia's homegrown democracy activists find their own path and domestic constituencies. (Cheney's hypocritical support--has this guy ever met a true pro-democracy activist he really liked?--will only stigmatize them as American proxies.)
This is asking a lot of our current administration but what we really need is a policy that understands why Russia has become a semi-authoritarian state. But understanding usually requires a sense of history--something missing from too much of our politics and media today. One thing that's clear though is that at a time when anti-Americanism has reached record highs, US lectures to the Russians about democracy will do more harm than good.