Thursday, May 28, 2009

"Rethink Before You Reset" by Daniel Kimmage

In March 2009, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton gave Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov a "reset button" to represent the new administration's desire for improved relations. Ironically, the word "reset" was mistranslated as "overcharge."

"The Obama administration thinks it can work more productively with Russia on the countries' mutual interests. Unfortunately, these interests don't exist."--Daniel Kimmage

Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (5-26-09) notes:

This article is adapted from a longer essay to appear in "Undermining Democracy: 21st Century Authoritarians," a special report to be published in June by Freedom House, RFE/RL, and Radio Free Asia.

Rethink Before You Reset - By Daniel Kimmage

For almost a century, American conventional wisdom on Russia has been consistently, and sometimes catastrophically, wrong.

You can look back to as far as 1920, when Walter Lippmann and Charles Merz of The New Republic picked through the New York Times' coverage of the Russian Revolution and found articles riddled with ludicrous predictions of the Bolshevik regime's imminent collapse. "The news about Russia is a case of seeing not what was, but what men wished to see," they concluded.

As the century wore on, the wishful thinking got worse. For a time, even mass murderer Joseph Stalin improbably morphed into the jovial, pipe-smoking Uncle Joe. When the American establishment finally reversed course and accepted that the Bolsheviks were there to stay, it clung to that belief so adamantly that the collapse of the Soviet Union took the CIA by surprise. In the 1990s, foreign-policy hands were celebrating Russia's "transition" to free market democracy under the buffoonish but supposedly well-meaning Boris Yeltsin and his merry band of "reformers."

The latest Washington consensus holds that Vladimir Putin has presided over a period of Russian restoration amid flowing oil and ebbing civil liberties. In a July 8, 2008 op-ed in the Washington Post, Henry Kissinger hailed "one of the most promising periods in Russian history" and described Russia's foreign policy under Vladimir Putin as "driven by a quest for a reliable strategic partner, with America being the preferred choice." A March 2009 report by the blue-ribbon Commission on U.S. Policy toward Russia developed this thinking further, concluding that "both countries' strategic interests require making a genuine effort at putting the U.S.-Russia relationship on a new high ground of cooperation, based on today's geopolitical, economic, and security realities and our many common goals." In other words, Russia is back, a force to be reckoned with, and intent on reclaiming its lost share of import and influence among nations. We might not like everything we see in Moscow, but the United States should try to engage the Kremlin, build trust, and work together.

This new conventional wisdom is as muddled as its predecessors, and the policies it inspires are just as flawed. To see why, we need a Russian reality check. We need to critically examine our notions about Russia's recent history so that we understand exactly who we are dealing with in Moscow.

A transition did take place in Russia in the 1990s, but it was not toward liberal democracy, a free-market economy, and the rule of law. Instead, the doddering bureaucratic authoritarianism of the late-Soviet period evolved into a flashier, more sophisticated authoritarianism whose defining characteristic I call "selectively capitalist kleptocracy." Russia today has a market economy subject to the whims of an elite that would be ripe for criminal prosecution in a free-market society with a functioning legal system and genuinely independent judiciary. Embezzlement of budgetary funds, graft and kickbacks, tax-evasion schemes, and grossly unfair business practices are not aberrations. They are the essence of the system.

This system began to take shape under Boris Yeltsin in the 1990s, matured under Vladimir Putin in the 2000s, and went on steroids as oil prices soared. But despite its muscle-bound exterior, the system lacks a coherent model of governance and is loath to acknowledge that it stands on feet of clay...[See full text.]

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