Can reset push Russia toward democracy?

By Fred Hiatt
Sunday, July 18, 2010; 10:17 PM

When I asked the young human rights activist whether she perceived any substantive difference between Russia's genial president and its surly prime minister, there was an almost imperceptible sigh.

You Americans, she seemed to be thinking. Always the same naive hope for the next Russian leader.

President Dmitry Medvedev is younger than Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and talks more often about restoring democracy and the rule of law. President Obama has settled on him, as much as possible, as the man to do business with. Students of Russia argue incessantly about whether Medvedev has power, whether he wants power or whether he is simply a more modern face of an increasingly repressive one-party state steered, as always, by the steely Putin.

Whatever she may have been thinking, the activist did not respond rudely to my question. "I know people here see the difference," she said after only a short pause, "but I'm not sure. Because all the time it's the same. Putin made declarations after Yeltsin, but it was the same. Medvedev makes declarations, but it's the same. In Chechnya, in Russia, nothing has changed. ... If I don't see results, I don't see the difference."

Obama's "reset" of relations with Russia has produced concrete, practical results, administration officials believe: The the signing of a major arms control treaty; Russia's backing of a U.N. resolution imposing sanctions on Iran; permission to transport cargo through Russia to the war theater in Afghanistan; and this month, the quietly unwinding on mutually beneficial terms spy scandal.

Inside Russia, meanwhile, Putin has constructed a system without room for real political opposition, and the state continues to narrow the space for independent action. Most recently, the last arena of contested elections ¿ in municipalities is being curtailed, and Medvedev is steering through parliament a law that further strengthens the successor to the KGB.

This is not the fault of reset. Putin began dismantling Russian democracy a decade ago, while the Bush administration kept insisting that Moscow was moving in the right direction, and President George W. Bush's "freedom agenda" did not slow him down. Nor has Obama touted Medvedev as a champion of democracy, as President Bill Clinton did with his counterpart, Boris Yeltsin; he has not claimed a window into his soul, as Bush famously did with Putin. Obama promotes his engagement enagement policy as a pragmatic effort to have two very different countries find areas of mutual interest.

But at a time when democracy remains threatened or in retreat throughout the former Soviet empire, with Russia leading the anti-democracy movement, it's worth examining the connection between reset and democracy.

One possibility is that there is none. Russia will evolve in its own way, and there isn't much the United States or anyone else can do about it.

A second, more hopeful reading is that engagement could, over time, nudge Russia in a positive direction. If its modernizers, personified by the lawyer Medvedev, can show that Russia benefits from steady cooperation with the West, they will be strengthened internally and encouraged to promote a rule of law that can, in turn, attract foreign investment and trade.

This has been one theory, for many years now, underlying U.S. cooperation with China. But that nation's successful marriage of growth and authoritarianism raises a third possibility: that the engagement reset gives Russia's dictators time, space and resources to further consolidate their power. Medvedev may have a vision of a modern Russia that relies less on Putin's oil-rich oligarchs and more on high-tech industry and foreign investment. But he may be as convinced as Putin that such a nation can be built on one-party rule, elimination of internal enemies and eventual domination of neighboring states.

I didn't ask the young activist which of these possibilities she finds most plausible. She has lived in Chechnya, a mostly Muslim province on Russia's southern edge where a warlord named Ramzan Kadyrov maintains order, many observers say, by means of kidnappings, torture and collective punishment. Last week marked the anniversary of the death of Natalya Estemirova, a human rights activist killed after Kadyrov's regime likened human rights workers to terrorists.

It's tempting to dismiss Chechnya's troubles as anomalous. But Kadyrov was installed by ¿ and retains the support of ¿ Putin. Estemirova is one of many journalists and human rights champions who have been murdered throughout Russia and whose murders remain unsolved. And it is Medvedev's Russian state that is pursuing criminal charges against Oleg Orlov, head of the nation's leading human rights organization, because he blamed Kadyrov for Estemirova's murder.

"It's getting worse and worse," the activist told me, shortly before she departed for an uncertain future in her homeland. "Every time we tell ourselves it can't get worse. And then it does get worse."

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