To Russia with Love Washington Promises to Tone Down Criticism of Kremlin

The US needs the Kremlin's support on Iran, Afghanistan and disarmament. Now Washington has promised Moscow to stop its continual criticism of Russia's democracy in a bid to get it on board. But Russian human rights activists are furious about what they see as American apathy to their plight.

By in Moscow

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was on her best behavior. Shortly after her arrival in the Russian capital on Monday, she politely apologized for not accompanying US President Barack Obama on his visit to Moscow in July. She had hurt her arm, she explained. "Now both my elbow and our relationships are reset and we're moving forward," she said.

In fact, the US has recently been adopting a conciliatory tone toward Russia, trying not to touch on sore points by asking about human rights or press freedoms. Just last year, the US State Department criticized a lack of democracy in Russia. The Russian Foreign Ministry reacted promptly, accusing Washington of harbouring double standards: "There is a clear division of human rights for internal and external consumption."

Such skirmishes should now be a thing of the past. According to the Russian newspaper Kommersant, Michael McFaul, who advises Obama on Russia, has promised a ceasefire. Kommersant reported that McFaul had already on Monday met the Russian administration's deputy chief of staff, Vladislav Surkov, and assured him of a radical change of course in Washington. "We came to a conclusion that we need a reset in this respect too and we should give up the old approach that had been troubling the Russian-American partnership," McFaul told the newspaper.

Pragmatic Turn

However, it remains unclear whether McFaul's promise also referred to government-funded American foundations such as Freedom House. Freedom House regularly publishes country reports and rankings in which it divides the world's countries into three categories: free, partly free and not free. On the large "World Map of Freedom," Russia is regularly colored in deep blue shades, signifying it is "not free." It's bad publicity for the Kremlin, as Freedom House's publications and rankings are highly regarded.

In response to criticism from the West, the Kremlin even created in 2008 its own Institute of Democracy and Cooperation, which is intended to make Western countries -- especially the US -- look more closely at their own practices. So far, however, it has not met with much success.

The pragmatic turn in American policy toward Russia follows the realization that the US needs Moscow's cooperation. In the long term, Barack Obama can only achieve his vision of a nuclear-free world with the help of the Russians. In the short term, Washington is aiming for a new nuclear disarmament agreement to succeed the START treaty, which expires in early December. Obama is also hoping for Russian support in relation to the conflict in Afghanistan and Iran's nuclear program.

As a further concession, Moscow will be brought on board during planning for a new missile defense system, according to McFaul. Then-Russian President Vladimir Putin had made a similar proposal two years ago, when he also offered the US the use of the Gabala radar station in Azerbaijan.

Not Left in the Lurch

So far, Washington's overtures towards Moscow haven't achieved the desired results. Although Clinton praised Russia for being "extremely cooperative" on the Iran issue, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov at the same time reiterated the Russian mantra that, in the current situation, "sanctions, threats and pressure" against Tehran are counterproductive.

Despite the announcement that Washington would stop lecturing Moscow about the need for greater democratization, Clinton still planned to meet with leading Russian human rights activists during her visit. Most are unimpressed by the Americans' new-found tact, however.

Ludmila Alekseeva, president of the Moscow Helsinki Group, criticized the US in an interview with the Ekho Moskvy radio station, saying Washington couldn't leave activists in the lurch. "If America and the rest of the world look on silently as they stifle our free press, break up our meetings, and squeeze rights groups, then I will think that President Barack Obama got the Nobel Peace Prize prematurely," she said.


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