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DLC | New Dem Dispatch | May 6, 2020
Idea of the Week: Democracy in Russia

Not so very long ago, Americans celebrated the end of the Cold War and the demise of the Soviet Union as the most important national security development since World War II, and as perhaps the greatest opening to the spread of democracy since World War I.

While the Soviet Union as previously constituted will never come back, democracy is no longer on the march in its former Republics, including Russia, and that poses a serious security challenge to the United States and to Europe that requires some immediate global attention.

Earlier this week, Freedom House, the most respected institution measuring indicators of democracy, respect for human rights, and stability in every part of the world, officially downgraded its rating of Russia to "not free." Citing a wide variety of dangerous trends, Freedom House identified the scheduled 2008 presidential elections in Russia as a critical crossroads for Russian democracy, and urged the Bush administration to take immediate and strong steps to pressure the Putin government to make those elections truly free and fair.

In two new reports by Michael McFaul of the Hoover Institution and Robert Orttung of American University, Freedom House cites the following factors as signaling a serious deterioration of Russian democracy:

  • The concentration of political and economic power in the hands of a corrupt elite that puts personal gain above the public good.

  • The elimination of genuine political competition in the country's electoral processes.

  • The creation of an atmosphere of fear in which the media and civil society risk reprisals for independent actions and unsanctioned attitudes.

  • The entrenchment of a judicial and law enforcement system that is rife with political manipulation and corruption.

  • The stifling of entrepreneurship and foreign investment in the face of weak enforcement of contracts and property rights.

  • The failure to achieve a political resolution to the war in Chechnya and the resulting escalation of terrorism and extremism.

As several of these factors show, Russia is not trading democracy and freedom for stability. Indeed, the growing centralization of power in Moscow is feeding instability and inhibiting economic development in a country where the rule of law and other basic prerequisites for growth and stability are still new and fragile. Aside from Russia's size and strategic location, and its huge impact on surrounding countries (especially former Soviet republics), it is expected to play a central role, for better or for worse, on international progress on nonproliferation, counterterrorism, the Middle East, and North Korea.

What can the United States do to help reverse the deterioration of democracy in Russia? For one thing the Bush administration can more clearly abandon the public rhetoric of unconditional praise for Putin that the president has followed in the past. His willingness, during his recent trip to the region, to visit former Soviet republicans in conflict with Moscow was a good start. He might also find an occasion to openly challenge the Stalin-style historical revisionism that is creeping into Russian commemorations of World War II.

More tangibly, U.S. diplomats could make it clear that further backsliding on democracy, the right to free expression, and transparency could endanger Russia's membership in the G-8 Group of Industrialized Nations, while jeopardizing or delaying the country's much-desired accession to the World Trade Organization.

The last thing the United States needs right now is the re-emergence of a hostile, expansionist Russian state sitting on a powder keg of corruption, thwarted ethnic aspirations, and -- lest we forget -- a huge stockpile of nuclear weapons and poorly secured nuclear materials. President Bush famously said after his first meeting with Vladimir Putin that he could "see into his soul." It's time for Bush and his administration to rely on less psychic measurements of Russian democracy, and do everything possible to prevent a relapse of Russia into a condition that could produce a terrible threat to our security for decades to come.

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Related Links Freedom House: ''Russia at a Crossroads: Upcoming Elections Defining Issue''

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