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If you want democracy, don't push Putin

posted by zaina19 on March, 2006 as ANALYSIS / OPINION

From: MSN NicknameEagle_wng  (Original Message)    Sent: 3/12/2006 8:26 AM
International Herald Tribune
If you want democracy, don't push Putin
Igor Zevelev and Kirill Glebov International Herald Tribune
SUNDAY, MARCH 12, 2006
WASHINGTON The Bush administration is about to reshape its strategy towards Russia. A report released March 7 by the Council on Foreign Relations said that 15 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, U.S.-Russian relations were clearly moving in the wrong direction, with President George W. Bush promoting democracy and President Vladimir Putin suppressing it.

Many analysts expect nothing good from Putin without a tougher American line and call for Washington to make democratization a central component of its policy toward Russia. But it is unrealistic to think that Russian democracy, human rights and civil society will improve if the United States applies pressure.

Everybody seems to understand that only Russians can change Russia's internal political arrangements. There is a false belief, however, that the United States can prompt Russians to do this. In the real world, American efforts to encourage democratic development would be successful only if the United States wielded, in its relations with Russia, enough "soft power" - which Joseph Nye defined as the ability to get what you want through attraction rather than coercion or payments.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the United States has set the agenda and the rules of the game in many interactions with Russia. But America has had much less leverage in affecting Russia's preferences, desires and thoughts in those areas where the two countries' fundamental beliefs about the world differed.

Unlike Western Europe after World War II, or Central Europe after the Cold War, Russia questions the habitual American assertion that it was the United States who won these wars. American preponderance is seen in Russia as an unpleasant fact, but not as a source of legitimate authority.

The United States has not been able to successfully transform its hard power into soft power in its relations with Russia. In this context, any attempt to encourage faster democratization will be seen as yet another instrument to dominate through helping pro- Western leaders to come to power, or simply as a tool to weaken Russia. This is not only the view of the Russian elite, but also a very popular attitude.

The United States finds many fewer supporters in Russia today than it did 15 years ago. Russian perceptions have changed dramatically; for domestic Russian discourse, political stability and order have greater value than democracy.

Democracy is often associated with the chaos, the collapse of the state and the material gains of the very few that occurred in the '90s.

The Pew Global Attitudes Survey found that in 1991, by a 51 percent to 39 percent margin, more Russians believed their country should rely on a democratic government than on a strong leader. By 2005, the proportion choosing democratic government had fallen to 28 percent. It is important to understand that Russians believe that a strong leader will bring about good governance and the rule of law. The secret of Putin's popularity is that he is seen as somebody who brought about at least some elements of the two.

America's support for democracy is addressed as much to itself as to others. Democratic institutions lie at the core of American identity, and U.S. foreign policy reasserts this fact by promoting these values in foreign lands. Such efforts may work if applied in the right place at the right time. Russia is a difficult place to promote democracy, however, because it considers itself an independent center of power and would hate to be treated like a student.

As for the timing for the proposed review of U.S. policy toward Russia, it could not be worse. With Russia striving to restore its status in the world arena, its confidence strengthened and its economy booming, criticism of Russia's democratic record will inevitably be seen as hypocritical rhetoric designed to conceal American concerns about Russia's revival under Putin.

This is likely to trigger an allergic reaction both among the Russian political class and the politically aware Russian population that will further aggravate negative attitudes toward what is seen as American intrusion. As a result, much-needed bilateral cooperation on several major issues might be hampered.

In the final count, the proposed policy changes would not only poison U.S.-Russian relations for the foreseeable future, but would also be detrimental to the very cause that the United States claims to be promoting. Excessive U.S. pressure could cause the Russian public to shift toward seeing the universal values of democracy and human rights as merely instruments of foreign political influence. If that happens, the future of Russian democracy may indeed become bleak.

(Igor Zevelev is Washington bureau chief of the Russian News and Information Agency, Novosti (RIA Novosti). Kirill Glebov is his deputy. Views expressed in the article are entirely those of the authors and may not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.)

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