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Prepare for Disappointment in 2008 Relations with Russia

medved1226.jpgThe FT is running a new op/ed which both predicts the difficulties and points to the opportunities for the West to improve relations with Russia: “The question for the west is how to deal with such an important but increasingly unco-operative country. The answer is to engage with Russia on many fronts but avoid compromising on western values, particularly the rule of law. It will not be easy, but the US and the European Union must try and apply some basic principles. First, forget about trying to turn Russia into a democracy from the outside. If Russia is to develop into a democracy, it will be done largely by Russians. Foreigners can help only at the margin – and only when the time is ripe, which is not now. The west should not refrain from highlighting Russia’s domestic warts but it should focus on key human rights issues, such as political killings, rather than vague comments about democracy.

From the Financial Times:

Russia is in need of firm handlingRussia starts 2008 with its confidence higher than at any time since the collapse of the Soviet Union. At home, President Vladimir Putin and his top officials have managed a succession which seems certain to ensure their grip on power for years to come. Abroad, Russia is increasingly willing to assert its influence, especially in the former Soviet Union. The high price of oil has given the Kremlin huge resources with which to remake Russia and try to fulfil its ambitions.The great cloud on the bright Russian horizon is the Kremlin’s growing authoritarianism. Mr Putin has suppressed hopes that post-Soviet Russia might soon develop into a democracy. In its place is a country dominated by spies and bureaucrats and their acolytes in business. The dominant ideology is nationalism, sometimes moderate, sometimes very intolerant, particularly of ethnic central Asians and Caucasians. But the elite’s overriding motive is the ruthless, and often corrupt, pursuit of personal wealth.Most Russians support Mr Putin because they credit him with stabilising Russia after the chaotic 1990s and safeguarding the country’s oil-fired economic boom. A few liberals protest passionately about the decline of democracy. But the rest of the country does not really care.The question for the west is how to deal with such an important but increasingly unco-operative country. The answer is to engage with Russia on many fronts but avoid compromising on western values, particularly the rule of law. It will not be easy, but the US and the European Union must try and apply some basic principles.First, forget about trying to turn Russia into a democracy from the outside. If Russia is to develop into a democracy, it will be done largely by Russians. Foreigners can help only at the margin – and only when the time is ripe, which is not now. The west should not refrain from highlighting Russia’s domestic warts but it should focus on key human rights issues, such as political killings, rather than vague comments about democracy.The US and the EU should encourage widespread Russian fascination with the west. That absorption does not make Russia a western country, but it suggests Russians can be drawn towards western values, by promoting everything from scholarships to London shopping trips. Also, western companies in Russia can do much by spreading international corporate standards.Next, recognise that Russia has legitimate rights in defending its interests in its neighbourhood, just as the US does in Latin America and China on its borders. Moscow genuinely feels threatened by the eastward expansion of Nato and other western institutions. Its fears should be addressed. But Russia must accept ties with neighbours should be based on an unequivocal recognition of their sovereignty. On this there can be no compromise.Third, focus government-level ties on pragmatic political and economic co-operation. Russia and the west have much in common on key global issues including nuclear non-proliferation, containing Islamism, and countering terrorism. In energy, where Russia is a vital supplier to the EU, relationships will never be easy given the tensions between a dominant producer and its clients. But the difficulties can be reduced by boosting transparency and cutting the role of politics in energy, in the EU and Russia.Fourth, stick together. The EU, especially, allows Russia to exploit its divisions by granting favours to some states, notably in energy deals, and punishing others. The west could deal better with Russia if the EU presented a united front.Finally, be prepared for disappointments. As the Alexander Litvinenko affair shows, there is no telling where the next diplomatic bomb may explode. The minimum the west needs from Russia is co-operation over energy, nuclear weapons, Islamism and terrorism. If that can be achieved, it will be a lot given Russia’s current policies.