Russia Vote Over Before It's Over
Democracy is not going to bloom in Russia this spring. On the contrary, President Vladimir Putin's certain victory in next month's presidential election will severely compromise Russian democracy for at least the next decade.
Though Washington should continue to engage an increasingly authoritarian Moscow in the war on terror and other vital issues, the course of Russia's evolution will harm relations over the long-term.
Putin's assured re-election March 14 will cap his four-year struggle to corral Russia's young democracy. During a recent visit to Moscow, I heard many Russian elites express similar accounts of Russia's path. Putin began by appointing seven viceroys to curb the power of Russia's democratically elected, if often corrupt, governors. He then laid siege to Russia's independent television stations, which were often critical of the government. Late last year, the president had oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky arrested primarily because he had independent ideas and an appetite for politics. The move sent a strong negative message to Russia's new crop of aspiring politicians.
Moreover, last December's parliamentary elections revealed both the vast power of Putin's United Russia party and the stunted nature of Russia's democratic process. With the help of government resources, including favorable TV coverage, United Russia won two-thirds of the parliament. Reform parties were shut out and competition was crippled.
Through these maneuvers, Putin has vastly strengthened the presidency and the state bureaucracy. His inner circle more than ever comprises former and active members of the security services and is committed to a strong role for the state in both political and economic life.
Putin seems intent on imitating Japan's Liberal Democratic Party as he seeks to create an entrenched party of power that will anoint successive presidents. Despite some hurdles, he and United Russia are so strong and other centers of political power so weak that the Putin machine will almost surely rule the country through two election cycles. Whether the system continues past 2012 depends on the views of Russian youth and whether the economy produces new leaders with different perspectives.
Washington must approach this emerging authoritarian government realistically. In order to pursue vital U.S. interests we need sustained cooperation with Moscow because it continues to be a key partner in the battle against terror, providing both intelligence and material support; has become more helpful to the U.S.-led effort to stop Iranian acquisition of nuclear weapons; and - if a Siberia-White Sea pipeline is built - could by 2009 add to the world market a volume equal to 20 percent of U.S. oil imports. Much of the fuel could go to the United States.
In addition, Russian-American cooperation at the United Nations is key to achieving our goals in Iraq and other hot spots. In the post-9/11 world, the United States must work with coalitions of the willing, prominently including Russia, to protect its national security.
But our clear vision has to extend to the longer-term: The authoritarian government that Putin is establishing is unlikely to be a stable ally. That Russia will not have the grass-roots institutions necessary to promote domestic stability during troubled times or to enlist working Russians' support for critically needed economic reforms.
Further, Russia - unhindered by domestic checks and balances - is currently pursuing a more aggressive tack toward its neighbors. Efforts to undermine the sovereignty of Georgia and Ukraines, for example, impeded our interest in regional stability and transportation of energy.
A second track for U.S. policy flows from these longer-term interests. First, we need to speak openly to Russian leaders about our concerns regarding democracy, as Secretary of State Colin Powell finally did on Jan. 26 in Moscow. Second, Washington needs to increase, not continue to cut, support for Russian democracy and do so in a less intrusive manner.
Past U.S. attempts to directly intervene in Russian politics - for example, by trying to strengthen specific political parties - are inappropriate and have not worked. Instead, we should increase funding for youth exchange programs to help change mind sets and for independent non-governmental organizations that promote democracy.
Putin's re-election could deal Russian democracy a decisive blow. That's not good news for America. Yet we need to squarely face reality, and craft a policy that promotes the many interests we have in Russia.
Cliff Kupchan is Vice President and a Senior Fellow at The Nixon Center.
This article originally appeared in Newsday.