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Democracy Pretension

Comment by Vladimir Frolov Special to Russia Profile 04/17/2007

Is the United States Promoting Democracy or Leveraging Political Influence in Russia?

The latest State Department report – “Supporting Human Rights and Democracy: The U.S. Record 2006” – has caused a political firestorm in Moscow and has gone a long way towards eliminating the remaining kernels of trust in the U.S.-Russian relationship.

The Kremlin and the Russian political elite became irate over the report’s language in its section on Russia. It has become the focus of commentary on Moscow’s television channels and provided much political ammunition for both houses of parliament – both the Duma and the Federation Council passed angry resolutions denouncing the State Department report. The Conference on Foreign Policy, a gathering of five parliamentary parties, also joined in, calling the report a blatant interference in Russia’s internal affairs. In short, throughout the entire week, Moscow fumed.

It is easy to see why. The report bluntly states that the United States “is providing support, through political party training, training for mass media representatives on covering political issues, and voter education initiatives, in support of free and fair elections in Russia for the Duma in December 2007 and for president in March 2008.”
What does the United States have to do with the free and fair election of the new parliament and Russia’s future president? Has it ever occurred to anyone in Washington that calling for an U.S. role in Russian elections might be a violation of Russia’s sovereignty? And that Moscow would consider it a major offense with adverse consequences for the bilateral relationship?
The State Department report and subsequently released documents make it abundantly clear this simple thought did not cross the enlightened minds at Foggy Bottom. According to the report, this is what the United States did in 2006: “To promote free and fair elections, the United States continued to provide programmatic and technical support to a Russian election watchdog organization, nonpartisan training for political parties and training for mass media representatives on covering political issues and engaging with the public about the role of a free media in an open, competitive political system.”
All of that might sound innocent, but why does the United States need to teach Russian journalists how to cover Russian politics. And what exactly can Russians learn from Americans about political media coverage? Surely it would be useful to have something like the Daily Show with Jon Stewart. And obviously an inquisitive Russian journalist with a good command of English could learn a lot from the political coverage by such giants of American journalism like Jim Hoagland or Tom Friedman. But why should such a highly personal educational experience should be promoted and funded by the U.S. government?

According to the USAID fact sheet, in Fiscal Year (FY) 2006, the United States spent $1,655,000 “to promote and support credible election processes,” which simply means funding the Association for Defense of Voters' Rights “Voice” (Golos) to monitor regional and local elections. In FY 2007, the funding for election monitoring remains essentially the same - $1,605,000.

Although having an independent NGO monitor the vote is a good idea, it is inadmissible in a democracy to have a foreign government fund this activity. Imagine the Russian government giving money to an U.S. NGO to monitor the infamous 2000 recount in Florida. It is not hard to imagine the reaction of American politicians and the media to such an offer. And the NGO would have gone out of business under a wave of public condemnation. After all, it would have first had to register as an agent of the Russian government under the Foreign Agents Registration Act.

A sense of concern is perhaps accentuated by reading the section of the USAID program (established under the Freedom Support Act) that deals with “strengthening democratic political parties.” Here the language is outrageous.

In FY 2006, USAID worked to “enhance the organizational capacity of democratically-oriented political parties (in Russia) and to encourage and intensify coalition-building efforts for the 2007-2008 elections” at the total cost to U.S. taxpayers of $3,910,000. In FY 2007, USAID will spend $2,010,000 to “support democratically oriented parties in preparation for the 2007-2008 elections.”
 
There are several problems with this effort. The principal one is that providing financial assistance to “enhance the organizational capacity” of political parties in a foreign country is not much different from buying influence and engaging in subversive activities, particularly if the parties being funded are in opposition to the sitting government. Such a practice is explicitly banned in most states.

The other problem is how the United States decides which party is “democratically-oriented.” If the criteria include a pledge in the party’s program to adhere to basic democratic freedoms, then all Russian parties qualify. But if the sole criterion is advocacy of U.S. interests in Russia, then what does it have to do with democracy? More than anything, it resembles subversive activity.

It might be argued that funds are not disbursed to Russian political parties directly, but are provided as grants to U.S. organizations like the National Democratic Institute (NDI) and the International Republican Institute. They, in turn, organize activities that work to strengthen Russian parties by means of seminars and training programs. But this is how a USAID press release described the $377,000 grant to the NDI in 2005: “With this funding, the NDI hopes to prepare one or two democratic parties to fully participate in the 2007 elections for the Duma.”

Could the approach be any blunter? The U.S. government openly states that U.S. public funds are being diverted to political parties in Russia to influence the outcome of a federal election. Washington knows this practice is illegal in Russia, just as it is illegal in the United States. U.S. law specifically prohibits any form of foreign funding to domestic political parties or candidates. In 2000, a public scandal over allegations that Chinese businessmen might have made soft money donations to the Clinton-Gore campaign in 1996 nearly derailed Al Gore’s presidential bid.

Why does the State Department seek to promote in Russia what is punishable by law in the United States? The inescapable conclusion is that Washington is seeking some unethical political advantage that should be camouflaged in righteous rhetoric about democracy. Even Russian liberals like Vladimir Ryzhkov are furious at the suggestion in the report that they are little more than instruments of U.S. policy.

This is not the kind of support Russian democracy needs. U.S.-funded democracy promotion programs have exactly the opposite effect, creating the impression that democracy is something alien to Russian culture and needs to be imposed from the outside. It is impossible to develop a Russian notion of democracy through foreign assistance and training programs. It is equally absurd to promote democracy in Russia by supporting a group of discredited political figures who have little if any following in Russia. Doing this creates the impression that the West cares less about democracy in Russia and much more about promoting its own interests.

What Russian democracy needs is fair treatment by Western nations and a policy of inclusion into Western institutions. Instead, Russia gets nauseating lectures on democracy and the U.S.-funded programs to influence the outcome of Russian elections.

As President Putin inquired in Munich: who would like this?

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