Russia's Limousine Liberals

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.

They are also very bad for the interests of America. The military overstretch produced by Iraq and Afghanistan has now been compounded by the colossal burden on U.S. resources created by the present economic recession. In these circumstances, as the Obama administration has recognized, the United States needs firstly to identify its truly important international interests and prioritize them; to reduce the hostility of other states to America wherever this can be done without surrendering important U.S. interests and values; and to enlist the help of other states, including Russia, in dealing with truly important issues like Iran's nuclear program and the long-term future of Afghanistan.

Do these Russian authors really think that U.S. interests and values are served by giving lectures on democracy that only infuriate ordinary Russians? By making further commitments to a regime such as that of Mikhail Saakashvili in Georgia? By pressing upon Ukraine a NATO membership which most Ukrainians oppose? The truth of the matter is that like Ahmed Chalabi and other "democracy promoters" who have sought U.S. aid, these writers care neither for American nor for Russian interests, but only to enlist U.S. help in trying to bring themselves and the groups they represent to power and influence in their countries-and do not even know enough about their countries to see that appealing for U.S. help in this way only reduces whatever popularity they still have.

By this kind of approach, foreign liberal informants like the Russians who authored these editorials have contributed to a deep flaw in Western journalism, reflecting in turn a tragic flaw in humanity itself: namely an extreme difficulty in empathizing with those whose background, culture, experience and interests differ from your own.

For of course, for better or worse, other peoples are just as nationalist as Americans themselves. They may well wish for democracy-but not always or necessarily if it comes with unconstrained capitalism and the assumption that to be a democrat means sacrificing your national interests to those of the United States. In the case of Russia, these American assumptions in the 1990s helped lead to the reaction of Vladimir Putin. And Putin's Russia isn't the worst we could see by a very long chalk. If the present Russian system falls, as the writers under discussion so ardently desire, we can be very sure of one thing: It would not be Russian liberals like them who would rise from the resulting ruins.

In none of the statements by the Hart-Hagel Commission or the likes of Henry Kissinger, is anyone an apologist for potential Russian aggression. Instead, they argue that compromise, when the West can afford it to get cooperation from Russia in the areas we need it, is the ultimate goal of sensible and realistic U.S. policy-not all or nothing strategies that will never achieve anything, and which these Russian liberals in any case never spell out in detail.

Understanding what narrative a specific nationalism is based on is key to creating better outcomes for U.S. policies in a number of countries of the world, including Iran and Pakistan. It is equally crucial in establishing better relations not just with the present Russian administration, but much more importantly with the Russian people; and thereby over time helping Russians get the freer media and more open elections they desire.

Part of the reason why both Russian liberals and many Western analysts tend to get Russia so badly wrong is that they instinctively compare that country with former Communist states, Soviet satellites in Eastern Europe and the Baltic nations. There, mass movements were generated in support of economic reform and democratization processes which, however flawed, spared them from the dreadful experience of Russia and Ukraine in the 1990s.

This comparison is dead wrong, and wrong for a reason that goes to the heart of the Russian liberals' failure to win mass support in Russia. In Eastern Europe, successful democratization, the adoption of successful economic reform, and the eventual achievement of economic growth proceeded in tandem because they were backed up by very powerful mass nationalist drives in these countries that were directed first and foremost towards taking these countries out of the orbit of Moscow, and into their "rightful" historical place as members of the West.