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America's silence makes us complicit in Russia's crimes

By David J. Kramer
Monday, September 20, 2010; A15

After opposition protests in Russia were violently suppressed in May, July and August, spokesmen for the National Security Council and the State Department expressed "concern" and "regret" that Russian authorities were not respecting the freedom of assembly. During the May 31 crackdown, one journalist who days before had interviewed NSC Russia expert Michael McFaul had his arm broken. When McFaul and Undersecretary of State William Burns met with a group of human rights activists and others this month in Moscow, longtime activist Lev Ponomaryov was notably absent. He had been arrested for giving an interview critical of the mayor of Moscow during which he allegedly "stepped on the foot of a militia officer." Burns lamely called it "regrettable" that Ponomaryov was unable to attend.

The activists who met with Burns and McFaul urged the United States to take a more public and critical position about the deteriorating state of human rights in Russia. Indeed, Burns and McFaul should have recognized Ponomaryov's arrest as a slap in the face by Russian officials and condemned it. A raid before their visit on the Moscow offices of the New Times by masked and heavily armed security forces triggered no official response from Washington, though McFaul met with the editors of the journal. What will it take for higher levels of the Obama administration to unequivocally condemn arrests of activists, violence against protesters, pressure on journalists and murders of government critics?

Alas, speaking the truth about Russia isn't likely to happen as long as the Obama administration spins its "reset" policy with Russia as one of its major foreign policy successes. Worse, administration officials have on numerous occasions rejected the notion of "linkage" between human rights problems and the U.S-Russia relationship. Such attitudes signal to Russian officials that there are no consequences for behavior such as cracking the heads of protesters, as Prime Minister Vladimir Putin recently advocated in an interview with the newspaper Kommersant, or the Moscow prosecutor's office demanding organizational and financial documentation from leading human rights groups, as it did after the McFaul-Burns visit.

Given that the United States has little leverage over Russia, some in and outside the U.S. government argue that we should focus on areas where we can work together, such as in dealing with Iran, North Korea and nonproliferation. This thinking overlooks the effect that domestic developments have on Russia's foreign policy. A growing values gap will reduce areas of common interest between our governments.

So what could be done? For starters, the administration should repudiate its policy of publicly rejecting linkage. Instead, officials should state that a deteriorating internal situation in Russia will affect the bilateral relationship and affect Russian elites' ability to pursue their interests in the West. Using clear language, they should condemn human rights abuses.

Second, the U.S. government should refuse to help Russian leaders with economic modernization in the absence of any political liberalization. Doing so simply plays into their agenda and runs the risk that we will be seen as complicit in the elites' phony, top-down drive for modernization.

Third, McFaul, a longtime democracy advocate, should terminate his Civil Society Working Group, of which Vladislav Surkov, first deputy head of the presidential administration and the architect of Russian's "sovereign democracy" concept, is co-chair. This group should never have been launched with Surkov's involvement.

Fourth, U.S. support for Russian membership in the World Trade Organization should be suspended unless Russia abides by the rules of the organizations in which it is already a member, such as the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the Group of Eight and the Council of Europe. Having Russia join the WTO and defy its rules, too, would make a mockery of all these organizations and will not help Russian reforms.

Fifth, the administration should consider denying visas to Russian officials who authorize or engage in human rights abuses. Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) proposed this after Russian lawyer Sergei Magnitsky died in jail last year after being deprived of medical care. Washington should look into applying this approach to other cases, including the farcical trial of the oil billionaire Mikhail Khodorkovsky and his business partner Platon Lebedev. Depriving Russian officials the opportunity to visit America, educate their children here and hide their money in U.S. bank accounts would get their attention in a hurry.

Sixth, U.S. officials should have serious discussions with European counterparts to encourage them to pursue similar approaches. Some governments want to ignore rights abuses while they promote engagement and business strategies with Russia, but any potential impact will be greater if this is a joint U.S.-European initiative. In Britain, the idea of a visa ban has already been raised in some circles.

The human rights situation in Russia is bad and likely to get much worse as the March 2012 presidential election nears. Those in power will do anything to stay in power. Russia's future and political development will be determined by Russians, but the West should do no further harm by perpetuating the current system. Enough already with U.S. expressions of "regret" about the deteriorating situation inside Russia -- it's time to call it like it is: Condemn what's happening there and consider consequences for continued human rights abuses.

The writer, a senior transatlantic fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States, was an assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor in the George W. Bush administration. The opinions expressed here are his own.

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