Russia’s a Grown-Up

It has an army, a stock market and a national bank. It has a seat on the U.N. Security Council, ambassadors in most world capitals and Olympic ice skaters. It has a flag, and quite a few satellites. So why can’t we treat Russia like a grown-up nation?

Certainly at the moment we don’t — and we haven’t, really, since the collapse of the Soviet Union. When George W. Bush meets Tony Blair, the atmosphere is friendly but businesslike. When he meets Jacques Chirac, the atmosphere is chilly but still businesslike. When he meets Vladimir Putin, on the other hand, Bush bends over backward, not just to be businesslike or friendly but to be best friends. The U.S. president looks into his Russian counterpart’s eyes or steps out of line to compliment him for his “vision” of “democracy and freedom and rule of law” or invites him to his ranch.

To be fair to President Bush, his tactics are no different from those adopted by President Clinton, who routinely greeted his best friend, then-president Boris Yeltsin, with an enormous bear hug. President Clinton was also similarly inclined to wax eloquent about freedom and democracy in Russia, even as both began shrinking. What neither president has been particularly good at — what no one has ever been particularly good at — is treating Russian leaders like responsible adults or treating Russia like a country capable of abiding by the rules of the Western institutions it wishes to join.

This week, Russians participated in a parliamentary election that, for the first time, all of the normally mealy-mouthed Western observers actually declared to be unfair. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe called it “overwhelmingly distorted.” The Council of Europe, which promotes human rights in Europe, criticized the use of state-run media and taxpayer money to promote pro-Kremlin candidates. Considering that in 2000 neither of those organizations picked up on the extensive fraud, documented by the Moscow Times, that marred the presidential elections in Russia, their remarks are quite extraordinary — and there should be consequences.

By that I don’t mean we should send the Marines to Moscow or try to influence Russian voters. Our ability to alter the course of internal events in Russia is limited, and always has been. But we do have the ability to call a spade a spade or to call a non-democracy a non-democracy, and we should do so. The Russian president, for example, has lately appeared at meetings of what used to be called the G-7 — the group of the seven richest democracies — and is now, since President Clinton first invited President Yeltsin, known as the G-8. Since Russia is neither particularly rich nor a proper democracy, maybe it’s time the Russian president stopped coming. The point would not be to punish Putin, who would save a lot of time and money if he stayed away from that particular gabfest anyway. The point would be to make sure that our rules remain our rules and that they are not distorted because we feel obliged to smile patronizingly whenever the Russians violate them.

It’s not as if it hasn’t happened before. Back in the 1990s the International Monetary Fund bent over backward not to offend Russian sensibilities — or to attach any of the normal strings to its loans — and lost a good deal of money as a result. “We are a great country,” said President Yeltsin at one point, in response to foreign economic advice, “and you cannot tell us what to do.” Later he stomped out of an OSCE meeting when told that Russia was violating that organization’s human rights rules in Chechnya. At the time, our polite toleration of that sort of thing was wrong but understandable, given Russia’s instability, and the old Soviet Union’s historical enmity. But now another decade has passed, the Soviet Union is a distant memory, and the current Russian government can hardly be described as unstable. Yet we still say nothing when Russians remain in violation of European security agreements, and appear reluctant to hold Russia to the same standards we require of, say, Croatia.

The result is not only a distorted Russian-American relationship but a degrading of our own Western institutions and alleged ideals. Why should Iraqis listen when we talk about democracy if we don’t talk about democracy with President Bush’s best friend Vladimir? Why should Zimbabweans listen when we talk about human rights violations if we don’t apply the same standards to Chechnya? The White House has issued a few statements of mild distress about what was clearly an electoral farce. That’s fine, as long as we don’t mind if others don’t take us seriously in the future.

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