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John McCain and Russian Democracy

Like the nouveau riche craving to be accepted in noble society, Soviet leaders wanted to be treated as “equal partners” by the world’s democracies. International acceptance provided a sort of legitimacy otherwise lacking in a totalitarian system. Hence, the acute attention the Kremlin paid to its reputation abroad. Soviet dissident Vladimir Bukovsky recalled how an old lady once asked him to tell the BBC about a leaking roof in her house, since only Western criticism could compel the authorities to repair it. On occasion, international pressure secured the release of political prisoners, as was the case with Mr. Bukovsky in 1976. Some Western politicians used this leverage to help the cause of human rights in the USSR. Many more did not.

The current regime in the Kremlin inherited the Soviets' sensitivity to outside criticism. Western statements on human rights provoke accusations of “interference in Russia’s internal affairs”—a false claim, since the OSCE Moscow document specifically states that “commitments undertaken in the field of the human dimension…are matters of direct and legitimate concern to all participating States and do not belong exclusively to the internal affairs of the State concerned.” Not that such statements are frequent: One of the main pillars of the “reset”, from the Kremlin’s point of view, was the cessation of Western criticism over its undemocratic practices.

Fortunately, this approach is not universal. Last week, John McCain rose on the floor of the United States Senate to speak out for democracy in Russia. “Russia is a great nation, and like all Americans of goodwill, I want Russia to be strong and successful,” Mr. McCain said. “And I will continue to affirm, in public and in private, that the best way for Russians to secure the things they say they care about most—reduced corruption, a strengthened and equitable rule of law, economic modernization—is by nurturing a pluralistic and free civil society, by building independent and sustainable institutions of democracy, and by respecting the human rights of all.”

Turning to the March 20 rallies against Vladimir Putin’s government, organized by opposition groups across Russia, Mr. McCain cautioned the Kremlin against using force. “We should all say a silent prayer and a public word of support for Russia’s courageous human rights activists, as they make their voices heard,” the senator continued. “These brave men and women want the best for their country. They want a government that is not only strong but just, peaceful, inclusive, and democratic. I urge Russia’s leaders to recognize that peaceful champions of universal values are not a threat to Russia, and that groups like this should not face the kinds of violence, repression, and intimidation that Russian authorities have used against similar demonstrators in the past. The eyes of the world will be watching.”

Predictably, the speech evoked an angry response from Moscow. Konstantin Kosachev, chairman of the Duma foreign affairs committee, declared that Mr. McCain “doesn’t know what he is talking about” and accused the Russian opposition of refusing to contain its rallies to “where it is allowed by law.” If anyone “doesn’t know what he is talking about,” however, it is not Mr. McCain. The Russian constitution does not specify sites where Russian citizens are “allowed” to express their views—it guarantees everyone “the right to gather peacefully, without weapons, and to hold meetings, rallies, demonstrations, marches and pickets,” according to article 31.

Yet for all the indignation, the difference between the March 20 protests and the previous opposition rallies was striking. This time, there were no beatings, no mass arrests, no criminal charges against activists. There were some 70 detentionsbut this in the context of over 20,000 anti-Putin protesters in 48 Russian cities. Thousands-strong rallies in Irkutsk and Vladivostok passed off peacefully, without police interference. It is difficult to argue that a strong public message from a senior U.S. senator three days before the rallies had no role in this change. Last December, the White House issued a rare statement condemning police mistreatment of 82-year-old activist Lyudmila Alekseyeva during the dispersal of a rally in Moscow. In response, police dispatched a top officer, Col. Viktor Biryukov, to personally ensure Mrs. Alekseyeva’s safety at the next rally a month later.

Kremlin leaders want to be “equals” on the world stage. They enjoy G-8 summits, state visits and photo opportunities with their Western counterparts. Not to mention the real estate and bank accounts that members of Russia’s “elite” allegedly hold abroad. All this gives the West important leverage that can be used, at the very least, to reduce the level of political repression in Russia. It is too bad that so many Western leaders choose to ignore fundamental values in favor of short-term deals with the authoritarian regime. Perhaps that is the difference between politicians and statesmen.

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