The Really Smart Sanctions

Of all the types of international sanctions, the ones that work best are travel restrictions on officials of corrupt or authoritarian regimes. Such targeted sanctions do not punish populations; they do not incentivize corruption and black markets (like the infamous “Oil for Food” program); and they do not allow autocrats to blame economic hardship on “foreign oppressors.” Preventing a Robert Mugabe from buying tailor-made suits on Savile Row would hardly arouse indignation among his country’s impoverished famers.

Advice and Objection?

To the chagrin of presidents and prime ministers, most constitutional systems require international treaties to be ratified—sometimes by plebiscite, more often by elected representatives. More than once this democratic complication derailed the “best-laid plans.” The French non by 54.7 percent in May 2005 spelled the end of the European constitution and forced a reluctant Brussels to make concessions to its member states. Irish voters, who rejected the Lisbon Treaty in 2008 (before accepting a modified version a year later), no doubt slowed the pace of European integration.

Russia and Poland (Russian Version)

Смоленск – несчастливое место для российско-польских отношений. В 1611 году, после 20-месячной осады, город был захвачен польскими войсками. В 1940-м в Катынском лесу, в 19 км к западу от Смоленска, были расстреляны тысячи польских военных, взятых в плен Красной армией после заключения пакта Молотова-Риббентропа. 10 апреля 2010 года самолет Ту-154 польских ВВС потерпел катастофу при попытке совершить посадку на аэродроме «Смоленск-Северный». Погибли все, кто находился на борту – 96 человек, в том числе президент Лех Качиньский, первая леди Мария Качиньская, представители политической и военной элиты и духовенства.

Russia and Poland, Foes and Friends

Smolensk is a tragic place for Russian-Polish relations. Between 1609 and 1611, in one of the bitterest confrontations between the two nations, the city was captured by Polish forces after a 20-month-long siege. In 1940, thousands of Polish officers, taken prisoner by the Red Army after the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, were massacred at Katyn forest, 19 kilometers west of Smolensk. On April 10, 2010, the Polish Air Force Tu-154 plane crashed during an attempted descent at Smolensk-North airbase killing all 96 people on board, including President Lech Kaczynski, First Lady Maria Kaczyńska and senior members of the Polish political and military establishment and clergy.

Kremlin’s “Counter-Terror” Target: Journalists

As expected, the first target of the Kremlin’s “counter-terror” campaign in the wake of last week’s attacks in Moscow and Kizlyar was the independent media. Not that there’s much of it left. Vladimir Putin has long silenced the most influential voices of uncensored journalism, including NTV (seized by the state in 2001), TV6 and TVS (shut down in 2002 and 2003). But, apparently, even the few remaining critical outlets provide a major obstacle to the Russian government’s “fight against terrorism.”

Terror in Moscow, Again

At 7:56 a.m. on March 29, a loud explosion rocked Lubyanka metro station in central Moscow. Minutes later, a second device was detonated at Park Kultury. The deadly blasts during the morning rush hour claimed 39 lives. Dozens remain in hospitals, many in critical condition. Law enforcement agencies announced that both attacks were carried out by female suicide bombers, presumably from the North Caucasus.

All these years, while the Kremlin was usurping power in the name of “combating terrorism,” and while Russian police displayed its valor against peaceful protesters, North Caucasus, contrary to propaganda, has neither been stabilized nor pacified. Instead, the region has been given away to local strongmen—corrupt and brutal—in return for their personal loyalty to Vladimir Putin. Social, economic, and ethnic problems have not been solved, just brushed under the carpet. The reemergence of Caucasus-related terrorism should not come as a surprise. But the real question—cui bono? —will be answered in the next days and weeks.

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.

Sham 'Elections', Real Discontent

There was a time when Russian voters mattered. Elections in the 1990s were vigorously competitive. Twice, in 1993 and 1995, parliamentary polls were won by opposition parties. In the election of 1996, incumbent President Boris Yeltsin prevailed in the first round over his communist challenger Gennady Zyuganov by just 3.3 percent.

The last election with a semblance of democracy was held exactly 10 years ago, in March 2000. It was the poll that formally handed Vladimir Putin, acting as president since 1999, the keys to the Kremlin. According to investigations by the news agency and think tank Panoramaand the Moscow Times, Mr. Putin’s official result of 52.9 percent was achieved by ballot-stuffing, and his actual figures did not exceed 49 percent, which would make his first-round victory illegitimate. But there were at least elements of choice. NTV, Russia’s leading independent broadcaster, was still on the air, and liberal opposition candidate Grigory Yavlinsky was able to register, campaign, and, in the end, receive millions of votes.

Russia’s Fake and Real Opposition

Contrary to popular belief, not all Soviet bloc countries were one-party states. Some had “multiparty” systems, with the Communists formally sharing power with other political groups: People’s Party and Freedom Party in Czechoslovakia, Democratic Party and United People’s Party in Poland, the Christian Democratic Union and Liberal Democratic Party in East Germany. Indeed, the Socialist Unity Party did not even have an overall majority in the East German “parliament”, which was for years chaired by CDU politician Gerald Goetting. Needless to say, all “non-communist” parties faithfully towed their governments’ (and Moscow’s) line, for all intents and purposes serving as subsidiaries of the regime.

Medvedev: The "Democratic Reformer"

The “good cop, bad cop” trick must be one of the oldest in the book. Yet, unfailingly, this unsophisticated tactic continues to yield results, as illustrated by Russia’s ruling tandem of Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev.

Mr. Medvedev, we are told, is a “reformer.” We are reminded that, unlike Mr. Putin, he never served in the KGB. That in the first (and last) competitive elections for the Soviet Parliament in 1989, he campaigned for pro-democracy leader Anatoly Sobchak. That during his own presidential campaign in 2008 he declared that “freedom is better than non-freedom” and committed to make the protection of civil liberties his “most important task” in the Kremlin.

Last week the world was treated to yet another example of Mr. Medvedev’s “liberalism.” By a vote of 444 to 0, the Russian Duma, the only parliament in the G-8 that happens to pass major decisions unanimously, approved the president’s proposal granting minor parties one (1) seat in regional legislatures if they receive 5 percent of the vote.

In Stalin's Shadow

This spring, for the first time in half a century, Moscow will be draped with official portraits of Joseph Stalin. Three-by-five feet images of the dictator will be on display near the Bolshoi Theater, by the entrance to Gorky Park, and in other prominent places around the capital. According to the authorities, the 65th anniversary of victory in World War II would be incomplete without posters of the “commander-in-chief.” The plan will go ahead despite protests by prominent cultural figures, opposition leaders, and human rights activists who describe it as an insult to the memory of millions killed by the communist regime.

The Test of Democracy

For all the numerous definitions of democracy offered by political scientists and international organizations, one simple test stands out: an election that results in an opposition victory and a peaceful transfer of power.

By this standard, Ukraine “graduated” to the democratic club in 1994, barely three years after the fall of the Soviet Union, when then-President Leonid Kravchuk lost to his challenger, Leonid Kuchma, and duly passed the baton. A decade later, in 2004, it took thousands of people on Kiev’s Independence Square and a principled stand by Western powers to defend Ukrainians’ democratic choice, but in the end the presidency was handed to the opposition. This year, Ukrainians cemented the tradition, choosing an opponent over both the incumbent president and prime minister. Paradoxically, while rejecting leaders of the Orange Revolution, Ukrainian voters upheld its ideals.

Russian Democracy Returns, On the Streets for Now

Legend has it that when Vladimir Kryuchkov, KGB chairman and leader of the attempted coup in August 1991, was told that pro-democracy demonstrators could not be dispersed by force because of the sheer number of people, he did not believe it and demanded to be personally driven around Moscow. It was hard for a Soviet apparatchik to comprehend citizens willing to risk a crackdown to defend their dignity.

The experience of 1991 and the “color revolutions” that swept across the former Communist bloc in the early 2000s taught KGB operatives, who now dominate Russia’s government, that peaceful resistance can overcome repression. For years, Vladimir Putin was anxious to suppress even an embryonic protest movement. Opposition rallies were routinely “banned” (a procedure alien to the Russian Constitution, which guarantees the freedom of assembly) and dispersed by police, with dozens of activists detained and beaten.

A Kremlin Snub, At the Heart of DC

The U.S.-Russia working group on civil society, established as part of the bilateral “reset”, just held its inaugural meeting in Washington. Since no official statements were issued and no journalists were present, the outcome of the meeting is not clear. But what matters most about the new body is not its agenda, but its composition.

One would hardly have chosen Dr. Goebbels to serve as ambassador to Israel or Radovan Karadzic to promote interethnic tolerance. Yet when it came to appointing the Russian co-chairman of the working group on civil society, President Medvedev named Vladislav Surkov, the Kremlin’s chief political handler during the past decade
the decade that witnessed the near-total dismantling of Russia’s nascent democracy.

“Reset” with Russia, One Year On

U.S. policy toward the Kremlin has rarely been a partisan issue. The division lies between those who advocate deals with a repressive regime and those who understand that common interests require common values. It is hard to name a policy convergence between Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan, yet when it came to the role of human rights in U.S.-Soviet relations they stood in remarkable agreement. President Carter welcomed the recently-expelled Russian dissident Vladimir Bukovsky for a meeting at the White House. President Reagan famously presented Mikhail Gorbachev with a list of Soviet political prisoners during their first meeting at Reykjavik. Incidentally, both Mr. Carter and Mr. Reagan successfully pursued arms control negotiations (resulting in SALT II and INF treaties) while speaking out on human rights. In those days, the two issues were not considered mutually exclusive.


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