Russia is open to investment but closed to rights

Saturday, June 19, 2010

RUSSIAN PRESIDENT Dmitry Medvedev tried again on Friday to portray Russia as a "modernizing" country seeking better relations and more investment from the West. "The changes will take time but it will happen," he declared in the annual economic forum his government puts on in St. Petersburg. "Russia understands the tasks ahead and is changing for itself and for the rest of the world."

Unfortunately for Mr. Medvedev, that was not the only message out of St. Petersburg. Friday also brought the news that police had waylaid a truck on its way into the city and seized 100,000 copies of a new book written by two senior opposition figures about Vladimir Putin's first 10 years in power. "Putin, The Results: 10 Years" by Boris Nemtsov and Vladimir Milov, argues that the decade's most notable legacy is a massive tide of corruption and lawlessness -- a judgment seemingly confirmed by the truck's hijacking.

To be sure, Mr. Medvedev appears committed to an economic strategy of moving Russia away from its dependence on exports of oil and minerals by attracting Western capital and technology. He will begin his visit to the United States next week in Silicon Valley, and he is trying to foster a Russian counterpart to it outside Moscow. In his speech Friday, he promised to reduce taxes and ease visa regulations for foreign investors, and to cut down on the number of Russian companies required to have state ownership. This would be a significant change of direction from much of the Putin era, during which the regime actively discouraged or even persecuted Western companies.

Still, Mr. Medvedev's plans don't appear to include any domestic political liberalization. The trend is toward less rather than more democracy; for example, large Russian cities have begun abolishing the direct election of mayors. Mayor has been the highest executive post for which there are still competitive elections. Russia's ruling duo appears to have calculated that relations with the West can be improved, and the necessary economic inputs attracted, without any concessions to Western principles of freedom and human rights. Disabusing Mr. Medvedev of that notion ought to be a priority of the Obama administration when he arrives in Washington.

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