U.S. needs to carefully plot engagement with Russia

By Samuel Charap
Friday, July 23, 2010

The bill on President Dmitry Medvedev's desk that expands the powers of the KGB's domestic successor would seem to confirm our worst fears about Russia's political development. But the story of how it got there shows that Russia's political transformation is still unfolding and reminds us that the United States has a role to play in shaping it.

The proposed law would give the Federal Security Service (FSB) authority to issue warnings to individuals whose actions, though not illegal, "create the conditions for a crime."

Human rights activists and opposition groups have condemned the legislation, citing fears that the powers will be used to preemptively silence the government's political opponents. Memorial, Russia's leading rights watchdog, has noted the similarities between the bill and a 1972 decree that allowed the KGB to warn citizens not to engage in "anti-social activities that contradict the state security of the USSR," even if those activities did not violate laws. The "warnings" were used to intimidate Soviet dissidents.

Medvedev is unlikely to veto the measure, as he has taken credit for proposing it, dashing misplaced hopes that he is some sort of liberal foil to Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, a former KGB lieutenant colonel. So is this yet another nail in the coffin of Russian democracy?

Perhaps. But that's not the whole story.

As bad as it is, the bill could have been a lot worse. During the legislative process, rights groups succeeded in getting removed provisions that would have allowed the FSB to publish its admonitions, to summon a person to receive a warning and to impose prison sentences of up to 15 days as punishment for refusal to appear. A mechanism to appeal the warnings was also inserted.

This episode demonstrates that politics, however warped, still exists in Russia, and that civil society, however marginalized, still plays a role in public life. While far from fully democratic, Russia is not a one-party dictatorship.

The policy challenge for the United States is how to foster those trends that might lead Russia toward a more open political system while counteracting those that might take it in the other direction.

Some argue that the Obama administration's major expansion of government-to-government engagement (the "reset") on issues it considers top global challenges, such as preventing the proliferation of nuclear materials and stabilizing Afghanistan, makes the situation worse. They contend that this engagement implies an endorsement of the Kremlin's limits on domestic freedoms and empowers a government that is irreconcilably hostile to those freedoms.

But done right, engagement with Moscow could be important to influencing Russia's development in positive ways.

First, improved ties increase the chances that the United States can express concerns about what's happening in Russia without the discussion devolving into a shouting match. The past decade has shown that a climate of antagonism between the governments makes discussions of these issues impossible. Whether such discussions lead to change is another question, but having them is a good thing, especially when the alternative -- public finger-wagging -- creates more backlash than progress.

Second, engagement undercuts the "fortress Russia" developmental model, which closely links greater confrontation with the United States to ever tighter political controls, a closed economy and domination in the former Soviet region. It deprives the Kremlin of the specter used to justify its turn away from open politics: the West as the enemy at the gates.

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