By Patricia H. Kushlis
Well before Vladimir Putin’s formal re-relection to the Russian Presidency earlier this month, the Russian foreign policy machine vociferously complained and continuously whined about western interference in Russia’s internal politics. The foreign policy line emanating from the top was designed to play upon deeply held Russian popular angst of intervention by foreign powers.
As a part of Putin’s election campaign, he charged that the West had launched a nefarious campaign to undermine his candidacy as well as Russian political institutions in order, presumably, to weaken and perhaps destroy the country.
These charges are now being aimed at Michael McFaul, President Obama’s new activist US Ambassador to Moscow who is being targeted in a Russian domestic propaganda campaign by the Putin controlled Russian media for meeting with dissidents.
Propagating the Kremlin line
Unfortunately, this very same Kremlin anti-western interference line has been bought and is being propagated by individuals in the American media. The accusation is being framed as an either/or dichotomy – the kind Western media love to broadcast because, well a simple dichotomy is understandable to their average reader.
Former Business Week Moscow correspondent Paul Starobin made this case during a March 29 talk at the Baker Institute for Public Policy in Houston. But Starobin is not the only western journalist to buy into the Kremlin “us-or-them” line – and that’s not the only part of Putin’s foreign policy line that Starobin ascribes to either.
The gist of the argument is that if the US wants to have good relations with Russia, it needs to cease and desist contacts with and support for Russian pro-democracy activists.
Problem is, the Russian government’s line is short sighted, simplistic and tilts at windmills. Like much propaganda, it contains a simple grain of truth – in this case that the West is helping fund and train Russian pro-democracy groups - but then the Kremlin’s story metastases from there.
It is, first, based on false premises and second – yawn - is foremost the latest iteration of a visceral and centuries-old Russian view of the outside world; one that during the Cold War radiated from the Kremlin Clock Tower like a barrage of volatile fissile materials. The same paranoia also long predates the Communist state in Russian history.
The subversiveness of democracy training funds
Putin’s charges of Western interference in Russian domestic politics are aimed at US and European funding for Russian pro-democracy activists long fed up with the continual and pervasive corruption in Russian elections by the state.
With likely help from western democracies, these activists learned 21st century ways to counteract pervasive hidden Russian electoral fraud by making it public through the use of video cams at polling stations during the December 2011 parliamentary elections. These activists filmed election officials in the act of ballot box stuffing. Then the videos were posted on You Tube. It’s no coincidence that the massive pro-democracy demonstrations that followed in Moscow’s coldest weather occurred soon thereafter.
This has apparently embarrassed the Kremlin enough to indicate that it plans to expand the number of parties allowed to compete in the next parliamentary elections as well as, perhaps, to permit direct election of regional governors, a practice established under Yeltsin during the 1990s – but stopped by Putin as he recentralized power in Moscow and in himself. But we'll have to wait and see whether, in fact, this will come to pass. That proof is in the pudding.
Putin – in good Russian paranoid fashion – seemingly sees Western pro-democracy support for honest elections – as directly aimed at his demise whether, in fact, that is its goal or not. Since the Communists are the single major opposition party whereas the democratic opposition has long been fragmented – you go figure.
Meanwhile, the West, not surprisingly, has long supported democracy building in Russia as well as elsewhere in the world. It has been a basic foundation of American and European foreign policy for some time.
The US and the UK did so throughout decades of Soviet self-imposed isolation during the Cold War in good part through shortwave broadcasts on VOA and BBC. Once the Iron Curtain was raised under Gorbachev, pro-democracy specialists from the Nordics, the EU, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) through its Office of Democracy and Human Rights (ODHR) as well as various western governments – helped school Russian democracy activists. The West did this throughout the Soviet Union as well as in Europe and the United States.
The goal twenty years ago was to help see democracy succeed across a huge battered landmass populated with long range nuclear weapons capable of destroying the US many times over that many in the West feared would quickly revert to the worst kind of authoritarianism.
The democratic constant
With the exception of the three Baltic Republics, the West was too optimistic. Democracy building often takes centuries, not years. And democracies are ever evolving as the tug and pull of power relationships change over time. The democratic constant, however, is that those power struggles are contained by the application of agreed upon rules of peaceful succession. This practice centers on the election process and the ballot box.
As Winston Churchill said in 1947 in a speech before the House of Commons, “Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”
As if no American Ambassador ever met with dissidents in the past.
What nonsense. Of course, they did. This was part of the job even during the Cold War. And Secretaries of State met with dissidents, too during visits to Moscow. If nothing more, such meetings helped the US government take the pulse of the opposition – something any good Embassy political section is tasked with undertaking regularly in any country in the world.
Sauce for the goose. . .
Just, however, as the Putin government is pressuring the US today to modify its behavior in Russia and to cease interfering in Russia’s domestic affairs, the Russians are attempting behavior modification in the US. This includes interference in US domestic politics by using the influence of journalists like Starobin who support and can persuasively explain the Russian line.
But, hey wait a minute: seems to me what’s sauce for the goose should also be sauce for the gander. Countries are not self-contained pinballs whose exteriors bounce off each other on a flat green billiard table – if they ever were – and “interference” by one in the domestic politics of another is simply part and parcel of the international game.
Even a long isolated country like North Korea is not immune.