By Alec Paulson ’16, PAC Weekly Events Coordinator
Russia’s decision to grant NSA leaker Edward Snowden asylum is the most visible example of a growing rift between the United States and Russia. In response to the decision, Obama has canceled one-on-one meetings with Russian President Vladimir Putin at a G-20 summit in St. Petersburg.
Snowden’s asylum is just the latest setback to the already unraveling Russian “reset”, a strategy of engagement with Russia that Obama pursued during his first term to better relations with Russia by granting them a diplomatic ‘clean slate’. The reset led to marked gains for both sides when Russia was under Dmitry Medvedev’s leadership. Progress and cooperation was made on arms reductions, the war in Afghanistan, sanctioning Iran, Six Party Talks over North Korea among other issues.
On top of all the bilateral success, Medvedev even made a number of democratic contributions to Russian politics. Freedom House reported modest, but noticeable, annual gains in Russia’s democratic polity score under Medvedev citing greater regulation of corruption and ending Presidential appointments system.
Then Putin took office in May of 2012 and things got chilly.
Double downing on the reset strategy, Washington turned a blind eye toward Putin’s incursions on Russian civil society. These incursions comprise a regression in Russia’s democratization effort since Medvedev’s reforms. Putin poses so huge a problem Russian democratic progress that former President Mikhail Gorbachev has called Putin’s democracy a ‘sham’.
Gorbachev has sufficient evidence to justify these claims. Putin’s anti-gay agenda is an obvious example, but the continual regression into authoritarianism is due in large part to Putin’s condemnation of international non-governmental organizations. Human rights NGOs have an important role in any aspiring democracy as watchdogs for illiberal governance. In November of 2012, Putin signed the NGO Law on Foreign Agents, which required NGOs of international background to file taxes under ‘foreign agents’ subjecting them to unlimited audits. Even before his third term, Putin acted aggressively to remove human rights NGOs from Russia’s political process – a move he may very likely repeat.
Putin’s decision to regress the democratization efforts led by Medvedev is a serious concern for the United States. Michael McFaul, the United States’ ambassador to Russia, says that “Russian democracy and American national security are intimately intertwined” because the two states exert tremendous influence on international security decisions. If Russia and the United States have coinciding interests in a more liberal world, the prospects for peace and stability are much more likely.
Regardless of whether Snowden’s asylum decision was the correct location for engagement with Russia (it probably is not), Obama’s concern for Moscow’s democratic regression is well warranted. However, more condemnation of Putin’s aggressive political maneuvering is necessary for Russia to become more liberal. Obama got the ball rolling, but he needs to find more avenues of engagement with Putin over his civil crackdowns and democratic regression in order for Russian democratization to fully occur.
Alec Paulson ’16 is an Economics major from Wayzata, MN. He is St. Olaf’s Political Awareness Committee’s Weekly Events Coordinator for this year. Contact him at Paulson@stolaf.edu