Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Getting Russia Wrong

We hosted Alexei Pushkov today, the host of the Russian news and analysis program Post Scriptum (perhaps it might be compared to Nightline), which runs on Center-TV, a station which is not under the control of the Russian federal government. Alexei is also a contributing editor to The National Interest. While he agrees with the general direction of Russia, he is always blunt and frank and never hesitates to offer insightful criticism.

Alexei opened his remarks by questioning the commonly-held perception in the West that Russia under Vladimir Putin is "no longer" a democracy. From the Russian perspective, he said, what they had under Boris Yeltsin was not a real democracy--it was a period when state assets were lotted, when elections were manipulated, and when the country teetered on the brink of anarchy.

Whether you like Putin or not, he is a democratically-elected leader, he noted. He currently has a 76 percent approval rating and polls conducted by the independent Levada center indicate that if he were to stand for a third term, he would get 45-50 percent of the vote.

Because the State Duma and the Federation Council are under the management of the Kremlin administration, they are less democratic; the appointment of governors is also technically less democratic but is a gamble that appointment from the center will produce local leaders less in the pocket of local oligarchs and criminal elements.

With regard to the mass media, Pushkov said that it was the freest in the late Gorbachev period. After 1994 it fell under oligarchic control and was used by them to further their own private interests. There was pluralism only to the extent that different media outlets belong to different oligarchic groups. What you have today is the replacement of oligarchic control by state control designed in theory to ensure that the media promotes the national interest, although government control can be unneeded and excessive at times.

He compared political developments to the swing of the pendulum, from anarchic, manipulated "so-called" democracy of the Yeltsin era to a moderate authoritarianism under Putin with strong bureaucratic controls but with a wide zone of freedoms for Russians. The danger is that bureaucratic clans could replace oligarchs--but he expressed optimism that under Putin, the government is more responsive to the society, citing, for example, how reform of welfare benefits was altered after massive civil society protests.

He rejected the notion that in foreign policy Russia is becoming more imperialistic, saying that Russia pursues its interests and seeks to maximize influence and that economic tools are part of that process. He noted that democratic countries often tie economic benefits to political goals--what was the purpose of the Jackson-Vanik Amendment?

Russian foreign policy is less pro-Western today but it is also based on a clearer conception of Russian national interests. Russia may agree in general principle with the United States (e.g. Iran should not have a nuclear weapons capability) but this does not mean Russia will support the U.S. position 100 percent.

Moreover, he was very blunt: what are rewards for full support of the U.S. position? That the administration and Congress will graduate Russia from Jackson-Vanik? Who cares? Symbolic gestures are not enough. He cited the U.S. torpedoing the Moldovan peace settlement in 2003 as sending a very negative symbol to Russia that even in an area of less than prime importance to U.S. national interests, Washington was more concerned about allowing Russia to set an agenda for the post-Soviet space or giving credence to Putin's ability to help settle the frozen conflicts of the region.

Is Russia a problem or partner for the United States? If the United States defines its national interests as the pursuit of global hegemony, then there will be difficulties; supporting America's global leadership to work constructively with other countries is another matter altogether. Here there is ample room for a productive U.S.-Russia partnership.

An interesting view from Moscow.

Thought Pushkov's presentation validated your concept, Nick, of managed pluralism. He was critical in some areas, sidestepped some of the questions afterwards that touched on what he might have seen as overly sensitive.
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