Friday, December 09, 2005

Dueling op-eds on Russia and Civil Society

On Wednesday, Jack Kemp and John Edwards published their condemnation of Russia's proposed law on NGOs in the New York Times. My take on the subject appeared in the International Herald Tribune.

Needless to say, we have different takes. Kemp and Edwards say the legislation will doom the Russian NGO sector; my point is that much of Russia's indigenous NGO sector will be little affected. Kemp and Edwards say that the very idea behind the legislation is wrong; my starting point is that all societies--even the United States and Western Europe--place some limits on NGO activities, especially as they relate to foreign financing and political activity.

There are some points of agreement, if you read both texts closely (and of course, most people don't). I think that the legislation has serious flaws and Kemp and Edwards agree that safeguarding the integrity of the electoral process is a legitimate concern.

But the overall divergence--and what makes the debate about Russia policy so acrimonious--is your assessment of Putin. Kemp and Edwards start from the premise that Putin is ipso facto a negative force, and that his policies are ill-intentioned even if they concede there might be some benefit to be gained from it. I have a different perspective. I never signed on as a number of U.S. commentators (and apparently the president as well) did to over-exaggerate Putin's commitment to democracy. I've always characterized what he wants as managed pluralism. I've always felt his interest in democracy is functional--if it works to make Russia a stronger state, he's for it, not out of any ideological conviction about abstract ideas about rights. And he is clearly in the Stolypin mode--retrench and consolidate the state first at the expense of freedom in order to promote stability. And my problem with some of the U.S. commentators is that they continue to refuse to recognize the enormous shock and damage that occurred to Russia in the 1990s. I think liberal parties did poorly in the Moscow elections--and Moscow is the richest, best-educated, most liberal city in Russia--not simply because of Kremlin machinations but because voters don't trust them to do a good job (and either didn't show up to vote or voted for other parties). I think there is such a thing as "reform fatigue" and that even in countries like Poland we've seen evidence of this--and countries like Poland had an enormous advantage because of their track for entry into the EU--an option Ukraine or Georgia doesn't have.

I think that there needs to be a real debate over these issues, not the tired Washington Putin-is-Stalin / Putin-is-Brezhnev choices that seem to be the only acceptable options for discussion about Russia.

(By the way, we also need a Russia debate that is honest and addresses issues. You don't have to agree with my analysis or assessment, and I accept that. I don't accept charges that because the way my last name is spelled means I can't be objective. I also reject the canard that has begun to circulate that somehow the Nixon Center, the publisher of TNI, is in dire financial straits (this a lie) and is going to be receiving funds from a pro-Kremlin Russian businessman. Debate my ideas, which are my own--don't make up stories that imply that one's views are for sale.)


Many of the critiques of Putinist Russian revolve around this sort of hope-investment in Putin by American commentators and leaders. If they hadn't harped Putin to be a galant liberal democrat, then the probably wouldn't be experiencing the same crestfallen shock at Putin's centralizing policies.

I'm not saying that his policies are legitmimate, moral, or even necessarily justified. But that doesn't mean that they aren't to be expected.
So much damage has been done to America's credibility by the Bush government, that any future official American discourse along these lines is permanently discredited, suspect, and subject to mountains of caveats.

Various elites of one political flavor or another may imagine that America holds some a lofty priori standing, or a superior authority in determining the definition or analysis of what constitutes democracy, - but that kind of supremist thinking forever tarnished by the Bush governments' - and by proxy America's - radical deceptions, cataclysmic failures, obscene abuses, grotesque mismanagement, and wanton profiteering in the war of choice and bloody costly wayward misadventure in Iraq.

America has no more credibility.

Putin himself succinctly addressed this issue in the past with stinging rebukes suggesting the Bush government focus on the notable erosion of freedoms and democracy in America, and less on advancing imperialist designs on, and issue dictates to other nations.

What exactly is democracy. How do conservatives, liberals, or foriegn nations determine and define democracy.

The obscene hypocracy of American leaders questioning Putin on reversing "democratic" principles in Russia while blindly tolerating the radical erosion and perversion of democratic principles in and by America must compel peels of uncontrollable laughter in offices of foriegn governments friend or foe.

Let's get some basic terminology straight sans the Bush government disinformation warfare sloganeering and manipulative bruting of FALSEHOODS as the gospel truth.

Invading and occupying soveriegn nations based on a festering litany of deceptions, exaggerations, manipulations, and contamination of the intelligence product is tyranny - not liberation.

Slaughtering the invaded and occupied nations innocent civilians, destroying the nations infrastructure, targeting press, resorting to abuse and torture for actionable intelligence, imposing a perverion of democracy and erecting a puppet government beholden to cronies and oligarchs of the occupier, conducting propaganda and disinformation warfare campaigns on the occupied populaton, plundering and commandeering the nations resources and construction or reconstruction processes, and profiteering wantonly in and from the war, occupation, and socalled reconstruction is the definition of imperialism - not democracy.

A government that slimes its citicens as unpatriotic for posing legitimate questions - a government savages and attempts to silence and suppress any and every voice of opposition, or dissent, and anyone daring to question or challenge the ruling regimes policies - a government that radically perverts and re-engineers the laws and core principles of the constitution that government is sworn to serve - a government that applies torture and rendition as policy, - a government that continually cloaks the ambitions and designs of fascist cabals in clouds of secrecy, behind the peoples back, - a government that conducts disinformation warfare (perception management and information domination) campaigns on its' own people, - a government that continually throws sand in the face of both the judicial and political system and every and any investigation or examination of that governments deceptions, failures, abuses, dereliction of duty, book cooking, financial malfeasance and perfidy, and wanton profiteering - a government that ruthlessly decieves the people and betrays the public trust in rabid pursuit of a poorly planned and woefully mismanaged war of choice and profit - a government that shirks from and refuses to accept accountability, - and a government that operates above, beyond, outside, in breach, and in total disdain of the law and core principles of the nation that government represents - is the definition of a totalitarian dictatorship - not a republic.

Let's get our definitions and language straight aligned with something close to factbasedreality defining our democracy and our own government policies first - and then perhaps, - we can entertain criticism or dictates concerning the advancing or reversing of democracy in other nations.
A comment from Nick Petro's analysis over at Russia Profile, making the point of comparison with what the United States actually requires of groups that get foreign funding:

Presently, Russia is in the unique position of having foreign agents acting on its territory that are not regulated in any way. In the United States, such agents are regulated by FARA, the Foreign Agents Registration Act (22 U.S.C. 611, et seq. ), whose purpose, according to the Department of Justice, “is to insure that the American public and its law makers know the source of information intended to sway public opinion, policy, and laws.” Enacted in 1938 to counter the spread of Nazi propaganda in the United States, it has since been amended to shift the focus away from squelching subversive political activity to controlling the activities of foreign lobbyists.

In its present form, FARA is quite a bit more restrictive than the proposed new Russian legislation. It defines foreign agents as “any individual or organization which acts at the order, request, or under the direction or control of a foreign principal.” A foreign principal as any person or organization outside the United States, organized under the laws of a foreign country or having its principal place of business in a foreign country. In addition, it specifically mentions engagement in “political activities” (

Foreign agents are obliged to file all agreements, including income and expenditures twice a year, rather than just once. It requires that informational materials provided by foreign agents “be labeled with a conspicuous statement that the information is provided by the agents on behalf of the foreign principal,” and it provides for penalties up to ten years in jail for whoever acts as a foreign agent without prior notification to the Attorney General. Russian legislation, in contrast, envisions no criminal penalties. At the heart of FARA, however, is the mandate to maintain a national registry of foreign agents – precisely the sort of national database that Russia is proposing to create.

No one doubts that there are unresolved issues in the current draft of the Russian law, many of which have to do with defining the tax status of commercial activities of NCOs. The legislative process, however, is designed to address these in the second and third readings of the legislation, and none raise serious concerns over the fate of Russian democracy.
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