November 28, 2007

November 28, 2007 | Executive Summary on Democracy and Human Rights

Executive Summary: Advancing Freedom in Russia

The current Moscow power establishment is leading Russia back in time. Instead of moving forward toward a nation that cherishes and protects freedom and democracy, the establishment is creating a state and body politic dominated by a new breed of oligarchic groups composed of security officers and their business allies.

The Russian media are no longer free and unrestricted. With the exception of a few minor showcase outlets and the Internet, the media are dominated by the Kremlin and its allies. The majority of political parties are under state control, and the activities of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) with foreign ties are under severe scrutiny. Russia is no longer a free nation.

A return to authoritarianism is not in the interests of the Russian people, their European neighbors, or the world in general. Regrettably, most efforts to protest the Kremlin's political hegemony are suppressed, sometimes violently. Political opponents and media critics of the Kremlin have been censored, intimidated, and at times beaten and even killed.

The Kremlin has created and fostered the growth of scores of nationalist groups to establish "street muscle" and protect itself against an Orange Revolution scenario. These include Nashi (ours), the main pro-Putin youth movement, which works to create the public perception of massive support for the current regime and at times takes to the streets to stifle opposition to Kremlin policy.

The Moscow leadership seems impervious to America's and Europe's pleas to foster democracy. While the U.S. and its allies wait for a more opportune time to reengage, they should consider refocusing their efforts on Russia's neighbors that are willing to democratize. Ultimately, the Russians themselves need to realize that they can benefit more by integrating into the West and developing democratic institutions that will preserve and protect their freedoms.

On the other hand, Washington cannot ignore Moscow. Too many pressing issues--from Iran and nuclear proliferation to arms control treaties and the future of conventional forces in Europe--are on the table. Even during the Soviet era, Washington and Moscow at times had a robust diplomatic engagement, despite viewing the world very differently. Today, many of those differences have diminished as Russia increasingly integrates itself into the global economy.

The U.S. and its allies should make clear to the Kremlin and the Russian people that the lack of freedom in the Soviet Union was a major cause of its collapse and that nostalgia for those bygone days is severely misguided.

What the U.S. Should Do. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, U.S. policy toward Russia has assumed a transition to democracy that has not happened and is unlikely to happen in the foreseeable future. While the U.S. government and pro-democracy NGOs should continue to work with the Russian government when possible to strengthen Russia's beleaguered civil society, U.S. policymakers should recognize that Russia has chosen a path that leads it away from true democracy.

Russia is unlikely to make significant democratic reforms in the short term, but the United States should continue to prepare for a time when the Russian people realize that a one-party state in which all power is consolidated in the executive branch is not in their best interests. To that end, the United States should:

  • Promote a diverse freedom agenda, refocusing its efforts on strengthening the Russian NGO community in areas where the Kremlin has less of a pretext to interfere: enhancing economic freedom, supporting human rights, protecting press and academic freedoms, and promoting religious and ethnic tolerance.
  • Reorganize public diplomacy to reach the Russian people, especially Russia's young people, more effectively through the Internet--the only means of mass communication not yet controlled by the Russian government.
  • Establish an international Victims of Communism Museum in Washington, D.C., and in Central Europe. These museums would help to remind the world of the follies of Communism.
  • Expand student exchange programs. Congress and the State Department should double the number of grants awarded through the Freedom Support Act to the Future Leaders Exchange (FLEX) Program.
  • Prioritize the strengthening of democratic institutions in the former Soviet republics. The United States should make a long-term commitment to fund the development of democratic institutions in countries that are amenable to strengthening their young democracies, such as Ukraine, Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan.
  • Apply pressure to Russia through international organizations. The United States should coordinate with U.S. allies in international bodies--e.g., the G-8, the Council of Europe, and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe--to examine Russia's performance in freedom, human rights, democracy, and the rule of law.

Conclusion. At present, proponents of freedom and democracy can only hope that the Kremlin's current restrictions on the media, NGOs, free speech, and freedom of expression will eventually lose legitimacy and stature in the eyes of the Russian people.

Hopefully, the Russian people will come to understand that their country will stagnate and decline without true freedom even while it remains a principal exporter of energy resources and other raw materials. Russia and its citizens deserve better than becoming a Saudi Arabia with a cold climate and nuclear weapons.

The United States should continue to engage Russia on issues of national importance such as energy and national security, but policymakers should openly acknowledge that Russia has chosen not to become a true democracy and is instead apparently satisfied with "sovereign democracy."

Although the United States should not turn its back on Russia, it should refocus its efforts to promote freedom and democracy on more fertile ground elsewhere in the world.

Steven Groves is Bernard and Barbara Lomas Fellow in the Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom, a division of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies, at The Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Steven Groves Bernard and Barbara Lomas Senior Research Fellow
The Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom