June 17, 2011

As dictators fall in the Middle East and even China’s leaders panic at the word “Jasmine,” a question arises: What about Russia? Is Vladimir Putin’s regime immune to this fourth wave of democratic pressures?

It’s a safe bet that folks in Putin’s inner circle are wondering the same thing. Only 43 percent of Russians surveyed say that they would vote for Putin’s ruling party, United Russia, in the parliamentary elections scheduled for December, down from 56 percent in 2009. People are angry about rampant corruption at the highest levels and about the unsolved murders of journalists and others who probe too deeply. A think tank close to United Russia argues that the government is suffering a “crisis of legitimacy.”

That the public mood is souring during an election season presents some stark choices to Putin and to the United States. Putin could respond by providing some outlet for discontent, allowing more room for a political opposition that he has squeezed almost into oblivion. A new political party led by respected Russian political figures Boris Nemtsov, Mikhail Kasyanov, Vladimir Milov and Vladimir Ryzhkov applied last month to register to run in the December elections. If Putin is smart, he’ll let them run. They can’t win, at least this time around, against the government apparatus. But Putin’s regime could claim greater legitimacy if a genuine liberal opposition were given a chance to compete.

Yet Putin and his advisers may not be smart. They may be scared. They may decide to clamp down harder, stir up some anti-Western nationalism and try to weather the storm. Rather like Hosni Mubarak’s strategy last year.

And what will President Obama do? Until now, his “reset” policy has aimed at Russian foreign policy — getting support on Iran and in Afghanistan, signing arms-control agreements, trying to work out a deal on missile defense. It has not focused much on Russia’s increasingly authoritarian domestic policies. Officials hope the reform-minded and pro-Western president, Dmitry Medvedev, wins in a power struggle in which, they acknowledge, he has no power. And that’s one reason Obama wants Russia in the World Trade Organization — to strengthen Medvedev’s case for “modernization.” Yet this could all blow up if Putin elbows Medvedev aside and runs for president again. If (really, when) Putin wins, he’ll be eligible for two consecutive six-year terms, making him president through 2024 — a full quarter-century since he took power in 1999.

Can the United States blithely do business with this corrupt, authoritarian mafia state, led by a president-for-life who crushes all dissent? Some in the administration don’t think so. They doubt that foreign investors will ever flock to a Russia this corrupt and dangerous, and also doubt that the American people will embrace a long-term partnership with a new czarist dictatorship, especially one with Putin’s reflexive anti-Americanism. Vice President Biden said in Moscow this year that greater freedom, democracy and respect for the rule of law in Russia were “necessary” to have “a good relationship.” The economic modernization that Russian leaders claim to want will not be possible without political liberalization, he noted, and he emphasized the need for a “viable opposition” and “public parties that are able to compete.” Another who holds these views is Michael McFaul, Obama’s top Russia expert, who is soon to be nominated as the next envoy to Moscow. McFaul recently said that reset needs to focus just as heavily on “issues of democracy and human rights” as national security.

Not everyone agrees. Some top officials see the reset as the president’s most successful policy and don’t want to ruffle Putin’s feathers by raising inconvenient questions. Obama talked about the WTO, among other things, during his recent meeting with Medvedev but did not find time to say a word about Russia’s elections.

While the administration debates itself, Congress is stepping into the policy vacuum. Sens. Joe Lieberman and John McCain will soon introduce a resolution calling on Russia to register opposition political parties, allow free media, respect freedom of assembly, and permit international and domestic monitors for the coming elections — and calling on Obama to make these issues a priority. Last month a bipartisan group of senators, led by Democrat Benjamin Cardin and Lieberman, introduced legislation aimed at addressing Russia’s deteriorating human rights record. Named after Sergei Magnitsky, the lawyer who exposed a huge tax fraud in his country and was rewarded by being tortured and killed in prison, the legislation would freeze assets and deny visas to Russian officials who violate human rights. Co-sponsors include McCain, Dick Durbin, Jon Kyl and rising foreign policy star Marco Rubio. The legislation could end up replacing the Jackson-Vanik amendment, passed in the 1970s in response to the Soviet Union’s refusal to allow Jews to emigrate. It certainly will draw attention in Moscow.

It should draw attention here, too. With all the turmoil in the Middle East, Russia’s political situation has been ignored. Most assume that prospects for change are bleak. But Russia is never as stable as it looks — which is what has Putin’s crowd worried. At this time last year, everyone thought Mubarak had things under control, too.

Robert Kagan, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, writes a monthly column for The Post.