MOSCOW — Vice President Biden heaped praise on Russia on Thursday, calling it a nation of great creativity, great culture and great engineering, but he said it would have to get its legal house in order if it expected to attract more foreign business and investment.
In a formal speech at Moscow State University, Biden mentioned two of Russia’s most notorious recent cases involving business and the courts — those of imprisoned oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky and lawyer and whistleblower Sergei Magnitsky, who died in a Moscow jail cell in 2009 — and then said that “no amount of cheerleading” would lure back “wronged and nervous investors.”
“Get your system right,” he said.
Thursday was the second of two full days Biden spent in Moscow, meeting with business leaders, human rights advocates and opposition politicians, as well as President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. He said the Obama administration strongly supports Russian entry into the World Trade Organization (WTO); for one thing, he said, it would give American firms “predictable access” to Russia’s growing market.
Even as he lambasted Russia’s legal system in the university speech, at one point Biden seemed to be comparing the United States to the bank robber Willie Sutton. He said that when people ask him why Americans are interested in Russian business, he is reminded of Sutton’s famous quip about robbing banks because that’s where the money is. But he did not complete the thought.
Addressing the students who made up the bulk of his audience, along with university officials and Russian and American business leaders, he said, “Don’t compromise on the basic elements of democracy.”
And a free press, he said, “is the single best guarantee of political freedom.”
In mentioning Khodorkovsky and Magnitsky by name, Biden boosted public U.S. pressure on Moscow just as Russia is drawing close to WTO membership. He pointed out that Medvedev himself has lamented Russian corruption, and he quoted Medvedev’s description of Russia as “a country of legal nihilism.”
Russians, Biden said, “want to live in a country that fights corruption.”
Matthew Murray, the American head of a Russian nonprofit organization called the Center for Business Ethics and Corporate Governance, applauded Biden’s speech. “He has moved the debate forward today in saying we’ve got to be able to talk about this together reasonably — and in public,” Murray said.
Biden, who appeared unusually subdued, acknowledged that it has been only 20 years since the collapse of the Soviet Union and that Russia has come a long way in that relatively short period.
“There’s an awful lot that’s been accomplished, but modernization in every way is essential,” he said. “It’s true our expectations are high. It’s because we learned during the Cold War just how capable the Russian people are.”