Finding Common Ground With Russia
President Bush's meeting with Dmitry Medvedev in Hokkaido yesterday provides an opportunity to review American relations with the new Russian leadership. Conventional wisdom treated Medvedev's inauguration as president of the Russian Federation as a continuation of President Vladimir Putin's two terms of Kremlin dominance and assertive foreign policy. But after recently visiting Moscow, where I met with leading political personalities as well as those in business and intellectual circles, I am convinced that this judgment is premature.
For one thing, the emerging power structure seems more complex than conventional wisdom holds. It was always doubtful why, if his primary objective was to retain power, Putin would choose the complicated and uncertain route of becoming prime minister; his popularity would have allowed him to amend the constitution and extend his presidency.
My impression is that a new phase of Russian politics is underway. The move of Putin's office from the Kremlin to the building housing the government could be symbolic. Medvedev has said that he means to chair the National Security Council and, as Russia's constitution provides, be the public face of foreign policy. The statement that the president designs foreign and security policy, and the prime minister implements it, has become the mantra of Russian officials. I encountered no Russian in or out of government who doubted that some kind of redistribution of power was taking place, although they were uncertain of its outcome.
Putin remains powerful. He is seen by most Russians as the leader who overcame the humiliation and chaos of the 1990s, when the Russian state, economy, ideology and empire collapsed. Conceivably he has assigned himself a review role over the performance of his successor; it is possible that he is keeping open the option of running in a future presidential election.
Whatever the ultimate outcome, the last Russian election marks a transition from a phase of consolidation to a period of modernization. The ceding of power by a ruler at the height of his influence is unprecedented in Russian history. The growing complexity of the economy has generated the need for predictable legal procedures, as already foreshadowed by Medvedev. The government's operation -- at least initially -- with two centers of power may, in retrospect, appear to be the beginning of an evolution toward a form of checks and balances.
A Russian democracy is not foreordained, of course. But neither was the democratic evolution in the West.
What are the implications for American foreign policy? During the next several months, Russia will be working out the practical means of the distinction between design and implementation of national security policy. The Bush administration and the presidential candidates would be wise to give Moscow space to do so and restrain public comment.
Ever since the demise of the Soviet Union in 1991, a succession of U.S. administrations has acted as if the creation of Russian democracy were a principal American task. Speeches denouncing Russian shortcomings and gestures drawn from the Cold War have occurred frequently. Proponents of such policies assert that the transformation of Russian society is the precondition of a more harmonious international order. They argue that if pressure is maintained on the current Russia, it, too, will eventually implode. Yet assertive intrusion into what Russians consider their own sense of self runs the risk of thwarting both geopolitical and moral goals.
Some groups and individuals in Russia undoubtedly look to America to accelerate a democratic evolution. But almost all observers agree that the majority of Russians perceive America as presumptuous and determined to stunt Russia's recovery. Such an environment is more likely to generate a nationalist and confrontational response than a democratic evolution.
In many ways, we are witnessing one of the most promising periods in Russian history. Exposure to modern open societies and engagement with them is more prolonged and intense than ever before -- even in the face of unfortunate repressive measures. The longer this continues, the more it will impact Russia's political evolution.
The pace of such an evolution will inevitably be Russian. We can affect it more by patience and historical understanding than by offended disengagement and public exhortations.