The history of the twentieth century is one of confrontation between the West and a Russian autocracy legitimized by communist ideology. The start of the twenty-first century highlights a new phenomenon—the desire of Russian personalized power, devoid of any ideological framework, to survive by using the West. It does so by integrating the ruling Russian elite into Western society while rejecting liberal principles inside the country.
Although it would surprise the West, I would argue that the policy of the U.S.-Russia “reset” and new partnership between Europe and Russia plays a crucial role in the survival of the existing Russian system and has helped to legitimize the Russian status quo. Moreover, President Medvedev’s liberal rhetoric and the West’s faith in his ability to reform Russia—or at least its faith in his differences from Prime Minister Putin—have become pre-requisites for the reset itself.
While Moscow and the West form closer relations, the Kremlin builds a new police state. The Russian government has dismissed constitutional provisions guaranteeing civil and political rights. It has strengthened repressive policies as Russia’s next election cycle approaches and the ruling team seeks to stay in power. Russia’s evolution toward hard authoritarianism is a logical result of Russian personalized power, which—having exhausted softer aspects of leadership, including economic means to consolidate society—turns to outright force.
The unfair verdicts handed down to oil businessmen Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Platon Lebedev, the dissolution of peaceful demonstrations and single picketers, the prosecution of opposition leaders, the complete disregard for the requirements of civil society—all of these are symptoms of repressive tendencies. Russian authorities are gradually moving from imitative democracy to using threats of violence or even engaging in direct violence. Furthermore, the merger of authorities with criminal factions is resulting in a police state with a criminal bent.
The ruling authorities’ attempts to revamp their image, engage with the intelligentsia, and bribe representatives of the opposition cannot stop this hardening of authoritarianism. And we see this tendency not only in Russia but in Belarus and Ukraine as well. From this we can conclude that hybrid regimes imitating democracy—when lacking internal or external resources for democratization—will inevitably evolve into “iron fist” rule. Imitation of democracy breeds frustration in the society, and moving from imitation to real democracy is usually much harder than building effective institutions from the start. The democratization of the hybrid regime in Serbia was largely due to external factors like Serbia’s desire to join the European Union. In Russia’s case, this is not a consideration. This means that the West’s agenda to engage Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus and bring them into its own orbit has failed.
The fate of the reset between Russia and the West, and in particular the United States, is not encouraging. The reset can continue only under the following conditions: if the West agrees not to meddle in Russia’s internal affairs, if the West endorses Russia’s “spheres of interest,” and if the West accepts the Kremlin’s understanding of “common interests.” One gets an impression that the Western leaders either accept these conditions or, in trying not to vex the Kremlin, take an ambiguous position that allows the Kremlin to believe that its conditions are acceptable.
It is true that the strengthening of Moscow’s repressive syndrome has prompted the West to react, albeit belatedly and reluctantly. Statements were made about “concerns” with processes in Russia. But so far, the West’s actions have been limited to rhetoric. Proposals from the U.S. Congress and European Parliament suggesting that they would impose restrictive sanctions on Russian bureaucrats responsible for the death of attorney Sergei Magnitsky while in police custody and on those responsible for the guilty verdicts handed down to Khodorkovsky and Lebedev were never implemented.
In contrast, the Western reaction to Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko—who rigged the elections and repressed the opposition—was more severe. Herein lies the problem of Western “double standards.” The EU and Washington are ready to pressure Lukashenko; with the Kremlin, however, Western leaders limit themselves to a soft-sell approach. The reasons to tread carefully with Russia are understandable—the West’s disbelief in Russia’s transformation and the threat of losing an important and willing partner. Whatever the reasons, though, the West’s selective approach to upholding democratic principles discredits both it and the principles themselves.
While some observers would counter this argument by saying that the West does in fact condemn the actions of Russian authorities, Moscow by ignoring those statements, puts the West in an awkward position of impotence. This is exactly how the West’s response to Russian realities is perceived—both by the Russian society and the authorities themselves. It is unlikely that this helps the West maintain its reputation or role as a moral arbiter.
On the contrary, the Russian elite has found ways to influence the Western establishment. Khodorkovsky, apparently, was right when he said that Russia exports two things to the West—natural resources and corruption. In any case, Italy’s Repubblica’s investigation of Putin and Italian President Berlusconi’s “joint private initiatives” supports Khodorkovsky’s conclusions.
All of this begs the question of how much coercion and corruption in Russia is needed before the West will act? Or, to be less politically correct, how many Russian opposition leaders must be thrown in jail and how many more Russian journalists must be killed for the West to abandon its policy of connivance towards the Russian regime? These concerns are not meant to suggest that the West isolate Russia or impose sanctions on the country. My colleagues James Collins and Matthew Rojansky are correct when they distinguish between the Belarusian state and the Belarusian society while discussing Lukashenko’s regime; a similar approach should also be used when dealing with Russia. The West should both impose sanctions against those in the Russian elite and bureaucracy who are involved in corruption, money laundering, and repressive practices, while extending an “open-door” policy to the Russian society. The society should not suffer as a result of penalties against the ruling regime.
Who exactly should Western sanctions target? To begin, sanctions should affect those officials whose names are on the list of 60 Russian officials who should be denied American visas, drawn up by U.S. Senator Benjamin Cardin, as well as those who participated in the Khodorkovsky and Lebedev trials. Punitive measures against the second-tier of bureaucrats will serve as a warning to Russian authorities and show them that implementing their corporate and personal interests in the West will depend on how the authorities behave inside the country. Let us not forget that the America’s refusal to issue a visa to oligarch Oleg Deripaska caused significant discomfort at the Kremlin.
With respect to the corrupt Russian elite, sanctions that hinder its personal integration into Western society can be particularly painful for the regime. These can include refusing to grant visas, freezing bank accounts in Western banks, seizing property in the West bought with dirty money, investigating the corrupt activities of Russian regime’s Western partners, and possibly boycotting Putin’s pet projects like the Sochi Olympics and the FIFA World Cup. If Western leaders fear annoying the Kremlin, they could at least resist making gestures that can be interpreted as overt support of Russian authoritarianism.
Even if the West takes just some of these steps, it will have an effect, because today the West is the key guarantee of the continuation of the current Russian regime. If it does not take such steps, the least its leaders can do is stop schmoozing with Kremlin officials—a frankly humiliating sight for the West.
So far, the Western political and business establishment seems unable to abandon its role as the savior of the Russian system. One example is the recent share swap between the British oil company BP and Rosneft to form a global strategic alliance. Given that Rosneft owns Yukos—which was seized from Khodorkovsky—this “marriage” transforms BP not only into the owner of the pilfered company but also into a legitimizer of Khodorkovsky’s trial and Russia’s repressive regime. Moreover, this experiment shows that the Kremlin has found a new way to survive with the transfer of criminally acquired assets to the West, with the help of Western partners. While this may be just what the Kremlin wants, what does this say about the West?
In conclusion, the West must recognize the simple truth—appeasing the Kremlin will not make it more accommodating or predictable. On the contrary, it will only increase the aggression of the Russian elite both at home and abroad. Western leaders and businesses will have to realize this—and very soon.