MOSCOW — Yevgeny Bushmin tried to make his nation more American. Now he can’t believe he’s been slapped with U.S. sanctions.
The Russian lawmaker’s faith in U.S.-style capitalism and democracy drove him into politics in the chaotic years after the breakup of the Soviet Union. But after he helped lead legislators in a March vote that granted President Vladimir Putin the power to invade Ukraine, the United States put Bushmin on its sanctions list.
The Obama administration now is threatening more sanctions by early next month that could deeply disrupt life in Russia by squeezing the flow of dollars to the country’s financial system.
In a conflict in which the two sides disagree about fundamental facts, the Obama administration says that sanctions are hurting Putin’s inner circle. Russian leaders retort that the measures are simply helping unite their nation against America.
For onetime reformers such as Bushmin, 55, who is faced with the nation he once sought to emulate no longer allowing him on its territory, the attempt to isolate Russia is deeply misguided — and has set relations back to a Cold War time zone.
The chances for an enduring alliance in the 1990s were real, said Bushmin, who as an entrepreneurial young businessman-turned-politician once preached private ownership and democracy to voters in the industrial city of Nizhny Novgorod. Now he is the deputy speaker of Russia’s upper house of parliament and a member of the Putin-allied United Russia party. His once boyish sandy hair has turned salt-and-pepper.
After the 1991 breakup of the Soviet Union, “I was sort of euphoric” about the United States, Bushmin said in an interview in Russia’s imposing Federation Council building. Now he says his youthful faith might have been misplaced.
Back then, he said, “I was sure that people of the United States, who had come there from all over the world, were pioneers,” Bushmin said. “These people should have a very good attitude toward those who were choosing a new way.”
But when Russia began to rebuild, “we started to raise our voice,” he said. “Economically, when we rose from our knees a little bit, tense moments followed.”
Tensions between the United States and Russia have been building ever since the fall of the Soviet Union.
But some of the ill will is a far newer phenomenon, dating to Putin’s blaming the United States for stirring up anti-government protesters in 2011, a charge that U.S. officials strenuously deny.
In the early 1990s, there was a feeling in the United States that “if you made the right tweaks, Russia would break out in a full-fledged capitalist democracy,” said Fiona Hill, who co-authored a biography of Putin.
“We miscalculated,” she said.
The United States could have sent more money to Russia in the early 1990s, she said. Or it could have worked harder to include Russia when the European Union and NATO expanded into Eastern Europe. The war in Iraq and a 2011 NATO operation in Libya added yet more stress.
But there could be a simpler answer, said Michael McFaul, who until February was the U.S. ambassador in Moscow: Putin’s response to urban middle-class protesters, who took to the streets starting in December 2011, frustrated by the lack of a political voice and what they said were fraudulent parliamentary elections.
“Putin feared them, he cracked down on them, and he needed us to be the enemy,” McFaul said.
On a snowy day in December 1995, Bushmin, then a voluble member of the lower house of parliament fighting a losing election battle, stood on a mostly deserted factory floor and pitched himself to a skeptical crowd of workers.
Wearing a dark cloth coat and a fur hat, he tried to persuade them that he could help them with their daily troubles, such as grocery stores that had no food on their shelves and unemployment caused by state-run businesses shutting their doors. The new era, for all its hardship, was still better than the Soviet Union, he said.
Many people still viewed capitalism with suspicion, feeling that a society where some people were rich and others were poor was unjust. Even the word “democracy” had taken on bad connotations, mixing in voters’ heads with the uncertainties of the era. Bushmin worked his hardest to salvage the concept of elections and voting, which had been a lodestar for him ever since he founded a software company in the waning, liberalizing years of the Soviet Union marked by the Perestroika reform movement.
“I’m not allergic to democracy,” he told The Washington Post in 1995. “The only advice I have is let’s give it a different name and keep doing it.”
Democracy also sometimes means defeat, and Bushmin lost that election to a Communist. He soon wound up as the top official of the state tax service, then as a deputy finance minister during President Boris Yeltsin’s final two years in office and Putin’s first year. In 2001, he became a member of the upper house of parliament, where he has been ever since.
“I look more conservatively at all these changes than I used to back then,” Bushmin said in the recent interview. “I am absolutely sure that there is no such revolution that would strengthen the economy. Revolutions destroy the economy.”
When the U.S. Treasury Department announced that Bushmin was being sanctioned, it said in a statement: “On March 1, 2014, Bushmin publicly supported the deployment of Russian forces in Ukraine.” A Treasury Department spokeswoman declined a request for elaboration. The European Union, Switzerland and Australia have also targeted him and other Russian officials with travel bans and asset freezes.
At the time of the vote, Bushmin warned that more than 140,000 people had fled Ukraine to Russia since the beginning of unrest in Ukraine in November. That claim was never confirmed by independent evidence.
“I do not understand what I did wrong so that the attitude of the people of the U.S. changed toward me,” he said. He added that he learned of the sanctions on a U.S.-designed iPhone and at first thought someone was playing a joke on him.
The sanctions were “a revelation,” he said. “That was unexpected. I did not think that their response would be as it is.”
The youngest member of Russia’s lower house of parliament, Robert Shlegel, 29, might be the closest modern-day analogue to Bushmin’s younger politically minded self. But more than two decades after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the West has lost the allure it once held for many ambitious Russians who wanted to build a better future for their country.
“The events that are happening around us are changing our views,” Shlegel said of himself and his peers. “At the end of the Soviet Union, there was love for the United States. Now everything from the Soviet Union is fashionable again.”