After Vladimir Putin's decisive electoral victory in Russia's presidential election, many are asking whether the "reset" in United States-Russian relations will continue. I believe the answer to this question hinges on America's official reaction to Putin's re-election.
After protests that followed last December's legislative elections, president Dmitri Medvedev took steps to liberalize the political system. These included the sanctioning of mass public rallies, a proposal to restore the election of regional governors, much easier registration for political parties, and the decision to create an independent public television network.
Despite these initiatives, the unelected political opposition - those who did not reach the 5% threshold for a seat in parliament - continue to regard the entire Russian political system as unfair, and declared weeks ago that they would view the presidential election as invalid regardless of the outcome.
But this puts the opposition in a bind. Having written off the regime as unredeemable, their only recourse now is to see it removed. Their strategy for doing so, according to popular blogger Alexei Navalny, is to hold continuous public rallies until the regime is shamed into holding new elections. It is not at all clear how new elections would help them, however, since every poll shows that Putin is by far the country's most popular political figure.
US officials, therefore, find themselves on the horns of a familiar dilemma. Should they recognize an election whose outcome they clearly dislike, or should they back the allegations of a marginal opposition whose claims are clearly exaggerated? Put another way, should adherence to democratic principles trump political expediency?
Some will say that this is a false choice. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton did as much when she publicly condemned last December's Duma elections as "neither free nor fair". But if such criticisms are not to appear merely self-serving, they must be balanced. They cannot always condemn the government and cheer the opposition. They must also publicly applaud the government when it works to improve democracy, and criticize the opposition when it takes positions that are, to put it mildly, destructive of any democratic consensus.
A good place to start would be with a more balanced assessment of the Russian presidential elections. Secretary Clinton now has a rare opportunity to undo the damage that she did in her hasty condemnation of last December's Duma elections. A few simple words of praise for the enormous efforts undertaken by the Russian government in the past two months would place Russian-American relations on a new and much more positive trajectory.
Here are just a few things she could cite:
The five registered candidates represent a very broad spectrum of political views, from the communist, Gennady Zyuganov, who wishes to re-nationalize industry and isolate Russia from the West, to the liberal, Mikhail Prokhorov, who would like to break up existing national monopolies and join the European Union. The only candidate of any note who was denied registration - social-democrat Grigory Yavlinsky
- failed when more than a quarter of his registration signatures were revealed to be forgeries.
Each candidate received nine hours of free prime time television and radio space (not including four TV and radio channels that offered addition free air time), and up to 18 hours of air time for paid campaign ads. Surveys reveal that, thanks to these and to a slew of televised debates, the public was quite familiar with each candidate's views.
Finally, in an effort at transparency as yet unmatched in any other country, the election process in all 91,400 polling stations was carried live on the Internet. More than three million visitors each watched an average of 50 minutes of live feed. Democracy advocates should take note - this innovation is cited by 28% of people as the most important reason they trust these election results. This is in addition to an estimated 200,000 registered election monitors from opposition parties, some 700 international election observers, and new, transparent ballot boxes installed in Moscow and other cities. In short, it would be very hard to argue that the Russian government has not done everything possible to ensure a free and fair election, and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) head of mission, Heidi Tagliavini, pointedly refused to label them as not free or unfair.
If, after these bona fide efforts, the official US reaction is still as condescendingly dismissive as it was last December, most Russians will assume that the real purpose of such criticism is to undermine the legitimacy of Putin's presidency. This will in turn cast a long and very dark shadow over future relations at a time when the United States needs Russia more than ever.
A scant four years ago Russia's perception of the United States probably would have mattered little since the United States saw itself in the driver's seat in the relationship. But the global economic crisis has turned many traditional assumptions on their head, and there are now many more risks to reverting to the open hostility that characterized the final years of the George W Bush presidency.
First, Russia is much stronger economically. In 2011, it was the world's third-fastest growing major economy and ended the year with a budget surplus. It remains the world's leading oil and gas producer at a time when, thanks to tensions in the Middle East, prices show few signs of falling. Meanwhile, because Europe has chosen to dither on signing long-term energy contracts, Russia has diversified its supply routes and reoriented some of them to China. This not only improves the long term balance of payments with her neighbor, but solidifies a long term strategic re-orientation toward Asia, largely at Europe's expense. Analysts expect the total value of trade between these two giants to exceed $100 billion in 2012.
Second, Russia now has a clear program for regional partnership - the creation of a Eurasian Economic Union. This will be very popular with many in the former Soviet republics and, given Europe's economic doldrums, will increasingly appeal to financial elites. It took less than two months after Putin announced his vision for four of Russia's neighbors to sign on. Even the perpetually ambivalent Ukrainian leadership has said that it finds the concept interesting. So far it has only signed on to the first step, the Customs Union, with the stipulation that it expects to receive "special treatment." But most Ukrainian analysts see this as little more than a negotiating stance. In the long term few doubt what Ukraine's choice will be.
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