Thursday, December 01, 2005
Seeing Red ...
In an article in the forthcoming isuse of The Washington Quarterly, Sarah Mendelson and Theodore Gerber cite survey data that some 59 percent of YOUNG Russians (e.g. those who came to maturity in the waning days of the USSR or in the post-Soviet period altogether) believe that foreign donors try to use their assistance to Russian NGOs to interfere in Russia's domestic affairs, and a whopping 72 percent said foreigners should stop trying to impose their ideas on Russian society.
Their solution? Refocus democracy assistance away from institutions in favoring of cultural change.
On the surface, it seems like a good idea. But in practice, this simply seems like another way of saying "think like we do, like the things we like" or else. And the bias still comes seeping through. At one point in their article, for example, they state that a Russian apology for the occupation of the Baltic States (something only 9 percent supported) would "bring Russia's understanding of that period in line with that of the West"--because the West's perception and definition is obviously the normative one.
Don't misunderstand me. I was one of those who publicly said that the Russian government's refusal to make such an apology was stupid and counterproductive (see the "Realist" in the Summer 2005 issue of The National Interest). But I don't think that Americans, British or French are on strong moral grounds here. Remember Clinton's famous non-apology for African slavery? How about having the British and French apologize for Munich--after all, there is a very strong possibility that if the Munich sell-out had not occurred and the Western powers lived up to their commitments, the entire chain of events that led to the occupation of the Baltic States would never have occurred. And how about at least a belated recognition that the Western powers flirted with the idea of pitting Germany and the USSR against each other (pace Senator Truman's comments in 1941).
Which brings me to Cathy Young's op-ed in the Boston Globe (via the IHT). I absolutely love the dripping condescension of the opening paragraph: "If Russia had a Thanksgiving Day, those Russians who care about freedom would not have much to be thankful for this year." Because most Russians obviously don't care about freedom, or at least not in the ways we want them to--a key point also in the TWQ article. Otherwise why would they vote for Putin?
The NGO legislation is worrying--it follows Putin's vision of "managed pluralism" for Russian society. Are there objectionable points? Absolutely! But there are also legitimate concerns, too. I find it odd when Americans advocate policies for other countries that are illegal here--such as allowing foreign organizations to sponsor political movements.
I think a more constructive approach would be for the U.S., Britain, Germany and France to express their concerns about how the draft legislation could seriously restrict civil society and offer their expertise as to how each of them regulate NGOs and civil society groups to address some of Putin's concerns. If he then rejects the advice, fine, then unleash the criticism--but let's not dismiss Russian concerns out of hand.
But what also bothers me about the Young piece is how easily Americans play hard and fast with the truth. History is now being rewritten so that all semi-autocratic, dictatorial regimes in the region must now be "pro-Moscow." So Young writes, "Nongovernmental organizations were instrumental in bringing down authoritarian pro-Moscow regimes in Ukraine and Georgia." Kuchma and Shevardnadze were PRO-MOSCOW? That's news to me. Shevardnadze was a constant thorn in Russia's side, the one who brought U.S. forces into the country for the train and equip program, the one who constantly refused Russia's demands to allow Russian forces to enter Georgian territory and who pushed hard for the complete removal of all Russian bases, an instrumental figure in getting the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline under way. Kuchma--let's see, the one who helped to form GUUAM--the U.S. attempt to counterbalance Russian influence in the region, who sent troops to Iraq, who did his utmost to frustrate Russian attempts to create a Russian-dominated economic union. But no matter. It spoils the narrative, of pro-Russian autocrats and pro-American democrats.
The U.S. is running into what I call the "democracy paradox" in a number of countries--what happens when those who share your vision are a real minority and couldn't win at the ballot box? In the 1990s, we told our democratic reformers in Russia to ignore democracy and rule by decree. This is the conundrum we face in the Middle East, and increasingly will face in Latin America as well.
What many Western NGOs do in Russia today would be illegal in the U.S. The U.S. has the "Foreign Agents Registration Act" (FARA). The purpose
of FARA is to insure that the American public and its lawmakers know the source of information (propaganda) intended to sway public opinion, policy, and laws. In 1938, FARA was Congress' response to the large
number of German propaganda agents in the pre-WWII U.S. This law has been updated a number of times since, particularly the "The Lobbying Disclosure Act" of 1995. The U.S. is keenly interested in limiting foreign influence peddling in its domestic politics; Russia is set to
emulate the same.