Russia's Limousine Liberals

Russian liberals, through their relentless criticism of Moscow’s domestic and foreign policies in the Western press, are actively offending ordinary Russians—and thus undermining any hope of the democratic reforms they want coming to pass.

Over the last several days, two pieces attacking the realist approach to Russia were published in prominent media outlets in the United States and Russia. One, co-authored by Lev Gudkov of the Levada Center, Igor Klyamkin, vice president of the Liberal Mission Foundation, Georgy Satarov, president of the Russian NGO the Indem Foundation and Lilia Shevtsova, a senior associate at the Carnegie Moscow Center was featured on the editorial page of the Washington Post. The other, by Andrei Piontkovsky, a visiting fellow at the Hudson Institute, was released in the Moscow Times.

I read these pieces concerning the moves to improve relations between America and Russia with a profound feeling of depression. This is not just because there is something bizarre and twisted about pro-Western Russian liberals attacking the recommendations of the Hart-Hagel Commission or statesmen such as Henry Kissinger and James Baker. It is also because their criticism serves as a mouthpiece for the agendas of the most bitterly anti-Russian and geopolitically aggressive liberal interventionists and neocons who help maintain tensions between Russia and the West-and actually between the United States and the rest of the world.

And these tensions are extremely damaging to any hopes of the long-term liberalization and Westernization of Russia which these liberals want to further. Do Piontkovsky, Shevtsova and the others seriously think that the U.S.-Russian rivalry in the Caucasus, and the war over South Ossetia which resulted, helped the cause of liberalism in Russia? Do they ever actually talk to any ordinary Russians, one wonders? Or do their duties briefing Americans simply leave them no time for this?

My depression is also because Russia does in fact desperately need a strong liberal movement which can influence the state in a positive direction. Thus figures like Igor Yurgens, a leading businessman and adviser to President Medvedev, are playing an extremely valuable role in resisting moves to further authoritarianism, centralization and nationalization in response to the economic crisis. They could do much better if they had bigger support within the population at large.

Tragically however, many Russian liberals in the 1990s-through the policies they supported and the arrogant contempt they showed towards the mass of their fellow Russians-made liberals unelectable for a generation or more across most of Russia; and to judge by these and other writings of liberals like the ones under discussion, they have learnt absolutely nothing from this experience. They think that they form some kind of opposition to the present Russian establishment. In fact, they are such an asset to Putin in terms of boosting public hostility to Russian liberalism that if they hadn't already existed, Putin might have been tempted to invent them.

Two aspects of their approach are especially noteworthy. The first is the profoundly illiberal-even McCarthyite-way in which Piontkovsky tries to disqualify views with which he disagrees by suggesting that they are motivated purely by personal financial gain, rather than conviction. Where, one wonders, would this leave all those Russian liberals, and U.S. think tanks, which took money from Mikhail Khodorkovsky and other Russian oligarchs in the past? Where would it leave those U.S. officials linked to leading U.S. private financial companies whose shares benefited so magnificently from the plundering of Russia in the 1990s? Where, indeed, does it leave Russians-like two of the writers under discussion-who draw their salaries from U.S. think tanks? Actually, I do believe that most are motivated by sincere conviction-but all the same, they would do well to remember the old adage about people who live in glass houses.

The other is the intellectual sleight of hand by which Shevtsova, Gudkov and the others suggest-without arguing or substantiating the suggestion-that the desire of ordinary Russians for greater democracy and the rule of law equates both with hostility to the present Russian administration tout court, and to acquiescence in U.S. foreign-policy goals in Georgia and elsewhere. According to every opinion poll I have seen, it is entirely true that most Russians would like to see more of certain elements of democracy in Russia, including, as the authors mention, the rule of law and a freer media.

But, according to the same polls, this certainly does not add up to approval of "democracy" as it was practiced under the Yeltsin administration, and praised by some of the authors. Georgy Satarov was, in fact, a top official in Yeltin's political machine with direct responsibility for some of the undemocratic practices of that administration. What is also absolutely certain according to the same polls is that whatever their feelings about Russian domestic policies, the overwhelming majority of Russians support the basic foreign-policy line of the present Russian administration and oppose that of the United States vis a vis Russia. This is not to say that every American policy decision has been wrongheaded and Russia remains justified in all of its positions, but rather that people who blindly back a U.S. democracy-promotion line are doing an injustice to the very liberalization they seek.