Russia's Lonely Liberals

Russia's Lonely Liberals

Russia's liberals may feel left out and abused, but poking Moscow in the eye won't help their cause.

Lilia Shevtsova’s first sentence in Lonely Power, her latest assessment of Russia’s domestic politics and its foreign policy implications, states directly that “what you are about to read are polemical essays.” She ain’t kidding.

[amazon 0870032461 full] Unsurprisingly for anyone familiar with her work, Shevtsova’s main targets are Russia’s government and its elite, both of which have considerable disturbing shortcomings. Russia does not meet Western standards of democracy and too many in the country’s corrupt elite have limited interest in establishing the transparency, rule of law, and checks and balances necessary to do so—after all, those same changes would expose their misdeeds and establish their accountability. Thus much of her criticism of Russia’s political system and those who operate in it is entirely appropriate. (Indeed, it is widely shared in the United States and the West, and presented in similar but less graphic terms by Russian President Dmitry Medvedev on state-controlled television.)

More striking—and revealing—in the book is Shevtsova’s apparent bitterness toward Western politicians and experts on Russia, especially whose who seek constructive relations with Russia. Shevtsova gives particular attention in this context to a commission report that The Nixon Center and Harvard University’s Belfer Center prepared under the leadership of former Senators Chuck Hagel and Gary Hart, which she said “suited the interests of the Russian regime” and characterized elsewhere as using “language strikingly similar to Kremlin rhetoric.”

Shevtsova may not know Washington well, but these two statements certainly suggest that she knows how to use unsubstantiated innuendo in an effort to discredit those with different views (including, in this instance, two of her colleagues at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace who were members of the Hart-Hagel commission). And in neither Washington nor Moscow does this approach fit in with the democratic standards that Shevtsova claims to hold dear. Shevtsova, however, appears to believe that her cause is sufficient justification for applying a rather looser standard to her conduct.

Shevtsova’s frustration, which might have clouded analysis that was stronger earlier in her career, seems to derive from her powerful conviction that “the current model of Russia’s development is exhausted.” As a result, she appears to feel that anyone in the United States or Europe who suggests cooperating with Russia in its current form is only prolonging the final death throes of the present regime and thereby delaying the country’s arrival in a heavenly democracy. Shevtsova is unwilling to attribute this Western behavior to rational assessment of national priorities in Washington, Berlin, Rome, or other capitals and instead looks for explanations in indifference or, alternatively, in greed or other base motives.

This polarizing, with-me-or-against-me mentality prevents Shevtsova from developing an accurate understanding of those whom she attempts to critique and leads her to bizarre and irrational interpretations of others’ views. Thus, for example, she attacks the recommendation in the Hart-Hagel commission report that America should “establish a government-to-government dialogue on Russia’s neighborhood, with a view to developing confidence-building measures” as “retrograde, backroom deal-making” and “a return to the days of Yalta.” Is Shevtsova seriously suggesting that regional transparency measures between the United States and Russia will lead to joint domination of Russia’s neighbors? Would a crisis hotline or mutual notifications of movements of military forces threaten anyone? Wouldn’t they make Russia’s neighbors more secure? This makes absolutely no sense.

Ironically, in view of the book’s title, it is not so much Russia that is lonely as Russian liberals—and this may be the deepest force behind much of Shevtsova’s bitterness. One can imagine how galling it must be for Shevtsova and other die-hard Russian liberals to watch as the mainstream portion of the Russian elite—high officials, business leaders, parliamentarians, media personalities, and others—have not only become increasingly wealthy via often corrupt practices but also usually enjoyed a better reception in the West than many of the liberals themselves, who doubtless view themselves as the West’s underappreciated intellectual and political allies in Russia. It would be difficult for anyone in this position not to feel betrayed by Western elites that provide Russian liberals little more than rhetorical support in the best of circumstances. Shevtsova’s policy recommendations point in the same direction, essentially calling for the West to punish the Russian elite in order to civilize it while simultaneously creating a new society-to-society dialogue that doesn’t involve them (where Russian liberals would presumably play a leading role).

The problem with this approach is that while it may be viable in dealing with an adversary, it is not really a workable policy toward someone from whom you want something, at least not if pursued to any significant degree. What Shevtsova really wants is a gradual Western policy of regime change in Russia in which “salvos fall on target” against the elite and the Russian public does not “suffer”—but the Russian elite is smart enough to recognize an Iran-style policy like that when it sees one (especially since any Western governments pursuing such policies normally advertise them) and is unlikely to appreciate it. This raises a number of specific questions that analyses like Shevtsova’s don’t acknowledge or attempt to answer.

Would the Federal Security Service (FSB) share intelligence on suspected terrorists if senior FSB officials face visa bans, asset freezes, or similar measures? Would economic officials approve business licenses for U.S. or Western firms if likewise targeted? At what point would Russia limit American access to Afghanistan? Would this not lead both sides to drop efforts at rapprochement? Where would this end? Those making policy recommendations have a responsibility to explain not only what they want, but where their preferences will lead and—at least in broad terms—how to deal with predictable problems that arise. Shevtsova simply dismisses these problems by suggesting that Western leaders don’t want the “headache” of changing the way they work with Russia’s elite. However, while it is possible to target individuals in egregious priority cases, as the U.S. has occasionally done, the wholesale assault on Russia’s elite Shevtsova seems to want would create much more than a headache.

On the contrary, it would seriously threaten major American foreign policy interests in areas including Iran, Afghanistan, and the Middle East and on issues like nonproliferation, terrorism, and energy security. Then again, these are American interests rather than Shevtsova’s, so perhaps she should not be expected to lend them particular weight in her own hierarchy of priorities.

Another question is whether the decline in U.S.-Russian or European-Russian relations that would result from Shevtsova’s approach would do anything to promote democracy in Russia. It would more likely lead to increased authoritarianism from a regime less able to satisfy domestic concerns—and Shevtsova herself has written that “sour relations with the United States always limit the space for liberalism in Russia.”

In fact, while a breakdown in U.S.-Russian relations could ultimately lead to regime change, that kind of thinking lies along the same path as Lenin’s “the worse, the better” and shows little concern for the people who would be forced to live through new tumultuous changes. It demonstrates the degree to which many of Russia’s liberals have radicalized even as they have become discouraged by their country’s trajectory. But the chances that abrupt regime change in Russia will have a democratic end-point are slim.

Real confrontation with Russia is increasingly dangerous in today’s world, when the West is still dominant but hardly the only major player in an international system that is becoming more complex and diverse. Like most Russian liberals, Shevtsova’s attention is overwhelmingly to the West; however, many others in Russia’s elite look to relations with large developing economies, like China. The West might or might not be Russia’s only real option for a successful development partnership, but it would be reckless to assume that Russia’s leadership is so desperate for Western investment that Moscow would accept heavy American and European guidance and pressure regarding its governance without rethinking its foreign policy.

The United States may at times need to confront Russia to protect vital American interests. But poking Moscow in the eye—with virtually no chance of shaping Russian behavior—accomplishes very little. The key distinction between today’s world and the Cold War era, a period many advocates of Shevtsova’s position like to highlight, is that during the Cold War the United States was trying to deter the Soviet Union from acting unconstructively while we now need not inaction from Moscow but action in support of American priorities. This makes a big difference.

It is not America but Russian liberals themselves who can take the most important steps toward their country’s gradual democratization, by developing a patient and realistic strategy to build domestic support rather than seeking external help that can never come in the degree they need as a substitute for what they lack in their own country. If Russian liberals can’t or won’t do this, they will become even lonelier as they are slowly left behind. That would be bad for Russia and for the United States.