“Principled and Purposeful Engagement:” US Policy on Supporting Human Rights and Rule of Law in Russia
Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Thomas Melia, co-chair of the Civil Society Working Group of the US-Russia Bilateral Presidential Commission, today argued for “principled and purposeful engagement” with Russia in a Senate hearing on “The State of Human Rights and the Rule of Law in Russia: U.S. Policy Options.” DAS Melia and Assistant Secretary of State Philip Gordon outlined the Obama Administration’s position in regard to Russia. Their testimony can be downloaded and watched here. From a civil society perspective, Freedom House Executive David Kramer, Human Rights Watch Washington Director Tom Malinowski, and President and CEO of the US-Russia Business Council, Edward Verona, testified as well; while their testimony is not yet uploaded on the Foreign Relations website, it should be up within 24 hours of this posting.
Recognizing the backdrop of the Duma elections and dramatic citizen protests that have swept Russia, four US policy-specific issues emerged in the hearing:
The Obama Administration’s Policy of Dual-track Engagement: Bi-lateral Relations and Civil Society Support. ”We firmly believe that a credible dialogue about democracy and human rights should involve not only contacts between the American and Russian governments, but also direct communication and linkages between American and Russian non-governmental organizations, independent policy experts, and regular citizens to confront common challenges,” Melia’s written testimony stated. Further, in addition to the $160 million provided in civil society strengthening and civil society assistance since 2009, “the Obama Administration submitted Congressional Notification for the creation of a new $50 million fund to support Russian civil society” in October 2011. “The new fund would not require additional appropriations because the $50 million would come from liquidated proceeds of the U.S. Russia Investment Fund.” (also from Melia’s written testimony). Both Gordon and Melia provided statements that reflect the Administration’s new-found voice in support of democracy and human rights; while the voice had existed previously, it was arguably muffled to a whisper under the “reset” policy.
Trade: Terminate Jackson Vanik. Both Republican and Democratic Senators expressed support for the repeal, as did the Administration through Assistant Secretary Gordon and DAS Melia. The Jackson Vanik legislation, passed in 1974, has been a barrier to Russian membership in the World Trade Organization; Senator Corker provided a moment of levity by asking Gordon whether he agreed that Jackson Vanik is now causing us to “shoot ourselves in the foot” by restricting US trade with Russia with little to no benefit or human rights leverage in return. Gordon diplomatically repeated the Administration’s support for its termination. Kramer advocated for parallel legislation in support of human rights (in the form of the Sergei Magnitsky legislation or comparable legislation) to be passed if Jackson Vanik is terminated.
S. 1039: The Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law and Accountability Act. A bi-partisan cadre of senators has supported this legislation, which would impose US visa bans on individual human rights abusers, most notably those involved in Sergei Magnitsky’s tragic death. Melia noted that the Obama administration has and is “taking action to deny human rights abusers entry into the United States…Consistent with the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) and President Obama’s “Proclamation on the Suspension of Entry as Immigrants and Non-immigrants of Persons Who Participate in Serious Human Rights Abuses and Humanitarian Law Violations and Other Abuses.” Essentially, the position taken by the Administration is that this is already underway. The concern is perhaps that passing the legislation can open a Pandora’s Box of difficult questions: who in the US government maintains the list? What if a name is added by mistake? Is this duplicating the already successful Human Rights Reports produced by DRL? Is it going to bureaucratize issues that are too important to bureaucratize? Further, it has also been reported that the Russian government, in particular the Ministry of Foreign Affairs with orders from the top, may respond with its own list of Americans blacklisted from Russia should that legislation pass. Sponsors of the legislation, its supporters (including Kramer), and those debating whether to support it must be wary of paving the foreign relations road with good intentions. That said, this policy difference between the congress, which is seeking to institutionalize support for human rights (as Senator Cardin articulated), and the executive branch, which is seeking to proceed with dual-track diplomacy to include human rights, should not be taken as a reflection of wavering US support for justice for the 37 year old lawyer – Sergei Magnitsky - who died because he dared to investigate state corruption and because of acts of commission and omission perpetrated by the Russian authorities. Gordon, Melia, and Senators Cardin and Shaheen recognized this terrible truth, though they may differ on how the US should respond.
Appointment of Michael McFaul. McFaul was nominated to be US Ambassador to Russia and a confirmation hearing was held in the senate on October 12th. Gordon, Melia, and Kramer agreed that the US needs a permanent Ambassador – our man in Moscow – now more than ever, and asked the Senate to confirm McFaul as soon as possible. The conservative right mobilized against McFaul after his hearing, mobilization that is arguably dangerous to foreign policy goals in the region at such a critical time.
An all-too-familiar script played out this past week in Russia’s parliamentary elections. You may think you can guess the ending by page two: international observers claim Russian elections are flawed, the Russian government says that is not possible, and the international community sighs. Elections, flaws, move forward on common foreign policy goals – or as the Obama Administration described it, “reset.” But as with any worthwhile script, the reality is much more intriguing: President Putin’s United Russia party’s support dropped below 50%, Secretary Clinton criticized the elections as flawed, civil society protests erupted, reported in seventy Russian cities, and Putin, with the arrogance of a true autocrat, blamed the dissent noton the will of his people or the election processes, but on the words of Clinton. If her words are indeed able to cause totally unprovoked protests across seventy cities, perhaps we should read the interaction that allegedly sparked and resulted in those protests, starting here:
What the Election Monitors Reported
On December 5, OSCE elections observers, lead by delegates from Greece, the Netherlands, and Switzerland, issued a disturbing Statement of Preliminary Conclusions. There are numerous salient points in the report, two of particular concern. The first is election-specific: the Ministry of Justice denied registration to political parties, effectively ensuring a race only among seven Ministry-sanctioned parties. As the report stated, “Despite the lack of a level playing field, voters took advantage of their right to express their choice.” In other words, you can select any ice cream you want, but your options include seven variations of black cherry. The second represents a more disturbing trend: state actors used the leverage of their positions to influence results. “OSCE/ODIHR observers noted unequal treatment of contestants by the election administration, local authorities and service providers in favour of the governing party.” So you can choose any of the seven black cherry blends, but really, please choose the one called Cherry for United Russia.
What Secretary Clinton Said: Neither Free nor Fair
On December 6, at the First OSCE Plenary Session, Clinton incorporated the following in her broader remarks: “We see setbacks for democratic institutions, the rule of law, and electoral processes. We witness prosecutions, such as that of Yulia Tymoshenko in Ukraine, which raises serious questions about political motivations. And when authorities fail to prosecute those who attack people for exercising their rights or exposing abuses, they subvert justice and undermine the people’s confidence in their governments. And as we have seen in many places, and most recently in the Duma elections in Russia, elections that are neither free nor fair have the same effect. We have serious concerns about the conduct of those elections. Independent political parties, such as PARNAS, were denied the right to register. And the preliminary report by the OSCE cites election day attempts to stuff ballot boxes, manipulate voter lists, and other troubling practices.” She further describes allegations of cyber attacks (to read more about these attacks and civil society responses, Freedom House published “A Victory for the Net in Russia” yesterday).
How the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs Reacted: Refrain from Unfriendly Attacks
The response, issued on December 6, is available in Russian here. The translation: “The statements of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton relating to the parliamentary elections that took place in Russia, as well as similar commentary by the spokespeople of the White House and State Department are unacceptable.
With regret we are compelled to establish that in Washington, some long-exhausted stereotypes persist, and they continue to hang labels (on Russia), without even trying to figure out what is really going on in our electoral field.
Russian citizens made their (own) choice, (and) participated actively in the voting. Only they have the right to define the future of our country, independent of anyone’s biased evaluations and politicized prescriptions.
We remind you that the electoral system of the United States is itself far from perfect. This has been said many times. It cannot serve as the standard of openness and fairness, which is evident in particular in the traditionally minimal voter turnout in elections at all levels.
The leadership of the United States ought to worry about the reasons for its own situation and the way to fix it.
We consider that in future the American side will refrain from unfriendly attacks that run contrary to the general positive trend of development in bilateral relations.”
On December 8, not to be upstaged, Putin added:
“Straight away the Secretary of State assessed the elections as dishonest and unfair even though she hadn’t even received the observers material. She set the tone for some of our personalities inside the country and gave them the signal and they heard this signal and with support from the state department started active work.” (Translation as reported by the AP)
On the same day, she stated: “the United States and many others around the world have a strong commitment to democracy and human rights. It’s part of who we are. It’s our values. And we expressed concerns that we thought were well-founded about the conduct of the elections. And we are supportive of the rights and aspirations of the Russian people to be able to make progress and to realize a better future for themselves, and we hope to see that unfold in the years ahead.”
Does it Matter?
It is a sign of individual and institutional weakness that Putin and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs would blame the Secretary of State for internal dissent. A democracy comfortable in its electoral processes and secure in its electoral outcomes does not need to seek out a straw man (or woman) upon which to pin blame. A true democracy embraces the will of its people, it does not fear it. A true democracy would investigate the allegations and take direct action to address them, including by overhauling the party registration process, holding new elections, and welcoming international observers who remain friends of a democratic Russia. The international community must continue to stand on the side of Russians who seek representative government rather than cherry-picked leaders loyal to Putin.
Crossposted here: http://lizaprendergast.wordpress.com
Two legal cases in Europe, one ending today and one still in progress, highlight the role of the judicial system in political hit jobs. Today, Yulia Tymoshenko, former prime minister of Ukraine and current leader of the All-Ukrainian Union “Fatherland” party, was sentenced by the country’s courts to seven years in prison for “abuse of office” relating to a gas deal she brokered with Russia in 2009. The conviction, let alone the harsh sentence, is widely seen to have been politically motivated by current President Viktor Yanukovich and his supporters as a way to remove Tymoshenko as a political threat to the president. Most observers recognize Tymoshenko as Yanukovich’s most likely competition not only in the presidential race in four years but also in next year’s parliamentary contests. She only narrowly lost to Yanukovich in last year’s presidential election.
EU likes to boast that its standards for democracy are used as strong benchmarks for partnership and admission of new countries. An EU summit in Warsaw held late last month focused specifically on the Eastern Partnership (a group which also includes Armenia, Georgia, Moldova, and Azerbaijan) reiterated the union’s democratic requirements while strongly admonishing Ukraine for its rapid centralization of power. These aren’t empty threats: more than 150 Belarusian officials along with president Aleksandr Lukashenko are banned from the European Union due to a very public crackdown on political opposition in that country last winter. With its eastern neighbors, the EU is serious about enforcing democracy, rule of law, and human rights criteria. If Ukraine continues on this path, Yanukovich can expect to see his name on a list alongside Lukashenko’s.
Within the EU and a bit further west, another case is receiving unusual attention. A court in L’Aquila, Italy, seventy miles northeast of Rome, is currently trying six seismologists and a government official on manslaughter charges for allegedly failing to warn the population before a 6.3 magnitude earthquake in 2009 which killed 308 people. Many have called for the case to be dismissed, with most labeling the prosecution as anti-science. Indeed, it is notably impossible to predict an earthquake; while a small likelihood increase can be noted, seismologists can never exactly pinpoint where and when it will strike.
In the wake of the Tymoshenko conviction, the situation surrounding the L’Aquila court’s motives shouldn’t sound too unusual. Widespread use of poor building standards and shoddy construction materials were determined to contribute to the extraordinarily high death toll; concrete portions of buildings were, once collapsed, even discovered to have been made from sand. The situation was exacerbated by poor management of the tented camps used to house the 40,000 homeless created by the quake; mafia and camorra criminal networks were rumored to have co-opted the reconstruction process and diverted mass amounts of funds. Immediately after the earthquake and even now, Italian public opinion has lambasted the local administration for these perceived failures; the scientists on trial are clearly a scapegoat for incompetent preparedness.
Luckily for Italy, the trial in L’Aquila does not implicate the entire federal government nor does it suggest a backslide into tyranny for the country as a whole. But it does highlight that “even” in the West–”even” among the reformed members and trading partners of the EU–the very un-democratic use of the judicial system to carry out political retribution is alive and well. Both on the large and small scale.
Dmitri Medvedev probably did not have a good night of sleep after the humiliatingt announcement that he will step aside next year to let Vladimir Putin get the Presidency back in 2012.
Medvedev will have trouble sleeping again soon: Not only will he not run for reelection, but he won’t be allowed a graceful exit either. If he left today, his name would go down in history as something between a puppet and a weak man. But to make it more complicated, Russia is poised to implement more austerity measures, and that unpopular move will have to be at least initiated before the end of his term.
While there are countless problems with this rather undemocratic way of orchestrating politics in Moscow, the fact is that Russians like Putin. They want him back, and they have solid reasons for it. There are no viable alternatives at this point. Putin himself made sure of that.
Is that problematic? Of course. There is an erosion of institutions, a near cult of personality, corruption, the smothering of the opposition, the press, the NGOs, the human rights groups and whatever else annoyed Russian’s strongman. But still, given his popularity, in a way the feelings of “disgust” echoed abroad after the announcement are paternalistic. Does the West knows better?
Too soon to despair, though. There could be some measure of vindication for the nauseated ones down the road. Russians are headed for a period of tight belts, which could hurt Putin’s popularity. Taxes, for one, will increase. In contrast with the 7% growth the country experienced last time Putin ran for president, the rate is now close to 4,3%, and should shrink to 4,1% in 2012, according to the IMF. That is after contracting nearly 8% two years ago. Oil production is supposed to remain flat for the next decade, making it more difficult to balance the budget. Meanwhile, modernizing the military will mean increases in expenditure.
There are already signs of problems. The finance minister, Alexei Kudrin, was sacked after a televised spat with Medvedev. Foreign investors are not happy, and they are a group that will be ever more needed in the years to come.
It hardly sounds enough right now to turn the tide on the Putin-mania, and it would be ridiculous to wish for a bad economy. But Putin will have a harder period in power this time around, and the sheer length of his dominance could provoke some fatigue.
Hungary reemerged as a hot discussion topic in democratization circles recently – for all the wrong reasons. As discussed by my colleague David in this forum, the Hungarian parliament, comprised of a single-party controlling majority, is blazing ahead with a series of controversial electoral reforms, media restrictions, and legislative limits to the number of legally recognized religions in the country.
Offering a window into the usually staid diplomatic banter between allies, the State Department’s public reaction last month to events in Hungary generated a spirited and R-rated kerfuffle involving a senior diplomat in the Obama Administration and a founder of the majority Fidesz party who also happens to be a Hungarian Member of the European Parliament. On July 24, Thomas O. Melia, Deputy Assistant Secretary at State’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor – and erstwhile professor in the Democracy and Governance program here at Georgetown – testified before the House Foreign Affairs Europe and Eurasia subcommittee on the topic: “Eastern Europe: The State of Democracy and Freedom.” He criticized the Lukashenko regime in Belarus, upon which the US has imposed progressively strict economic sanctions, he expressed alarm about the “assaults on freedoms of the press, assembly, and rule of law” in Russia, and he praised the Turkish government’s decision return property to the Ecumenical Patriarchate, the seat of the Greek Orthodox Church in Istanbul.
On the topic of Hungary, Melia’s prepared testimony expressed concern about recent actions taken by the ruling Fidesz government, particularly the “unprecedented two-thirds parliamentary majority [attempt] to lock in changes to the Constitution that could solidify its power, limit checks and balances, and unduly hamstring future democratic governments in effectively addressing new political, economic and social challenges.” In response to questions from subcommittee chair Congressman Dan Burton (R-IN) and ranking member Congressman Gregory Meeks (D-NY), Melia straightforwardly echoed the policy enunciated by Secretary Clinton during her late June visit to Budapest: it is incumbent on good friends to raise these issues.
In a particularly unfriendly response, Tamás Deutsch, a founding member of the ruling Fidesz party and Member of the European Parliament, tweeted in Hungarian, “who the f*** is Thomas Melia and why do we have to deal with this kind of s*** every day?” This became the headline of a news story in the Hungarian press the following day, and led to a series of articles and blog postings answering the question. An English-language article answered Deutsch’s first question, referencing Melia’s work with the National Democratic Institute in the late 1980s and early 1990s: he trained political party activists and civil society actors in Hungary, including the Federation of Young Democrats (yes, the Fidesz party), in various democratic campaign and election techniques during Hungary’s democratic transition. Other reports, including an Economist article online, observe that Deutsch acted rather hastily without researching the question he posed: before joining the State Department, Melia had a distinguished career as an activist with over twenty-five years of experience promoting democracy and human rights in influential positions at Freedom House, NDI, and what is now the Solidarity Center.
In this case Deutsch was unable or unwilling to substantively address Melia’s well-founded criticism, so rather than defending indefensible policies, he attacked the messenger. Deutsch deserves credit for heightening the international community’s focus on the critical issues raised in Melia’s testimony, including democratic representation, religious rights, and media freedom. Here are the substantive issues for discussion:
Democratic Representation: The Hungary Spectrum blog described the proposed electoral changes on July 12, challenging one significant effort proposed by Fidesz (there are others, including cutting the number of legislators and eliminating compensatory seats). Currently, parliamentarians are elected to the unicameral national assembly, as explained by the International Foundation for Electoral Systems, in a combined single-member district and party list PR system. Single member district elections take place in two stages: a first round, wherein a candidate must win over 15% of the vote to participate in a second round, which takes place two weeks later. The goal of the two-week period and the runoff is to create an incentive for parties and candidates to bargain on the basis of the first round results, to create coalitions and/or to withdraw in favor of a stronger candidate from a friendly party. This has worked very well in Hungary since 1990. In a single round simple plurality system, which is what Fidesz is now proposing, five candidates can split the votes: one candidate wins with only 24% of the votes, with the other four candidates receiving 19% each, totaling 76% of the actual electorate. In the two-round system as it stands, the four candidates would have an opportunity to form coalitions among the top performing candidates and political parties to put forth a candidate to represent more than 24% of the electoral vote in the second round. As David describes, the result of Fidesz’s proposed single round simple plurality system would be to limit the ability of smaller parties to form coalitions.
Right of Religion. On August 9, Freedom House called on the Hungarian government to repeal the “Law on the Right to Freedom of Conscience and Religion, and on Churches, Religions and Religious Community.” As reported by Freedom House and explored in the Huffington Post, the law reduced the number of recognized religious groups from 358 to 14; reregistering religions must pass a series of tests to demonstrate a history in Hungary, provide a petition with 1000 citizen signatures, and secure approval from two-thirds of the parliament. These restrictions violate the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, as outlined in Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and raise a host of ethical questions about the role of the state.
Media Freedom: In protest of recently announced layoffs of 550 employees of the state-funded radio and television media, hundreds converged outside of the Magyar Rádió station on July 13. Two political parties, the Socialist MSZP and the LMP green-liberals participated in the demonstration and criticized the firings as politically motivated by the Fidesz party. As Melia testified, this comes on the heels of the “government replac[ing] members of a media oversight board…with candidates aligned with the ruling party.” As explained by Human Rights Watch, the board is now authorized “to impose fines of up to €700,000 (approximately $900,000) on media outlets for “imbalanced news coverage,” material it considers “insulting” to a particular group or “the majority” or it deems to violate “public morality.”’ The United States is not alone in criticizing the law: as outlined in the Economist in January, when Hungary assumed the EU Presidency (which it handed to Poland on July 3), Germany and France expressed concern about the law as well.
Hungary is taking a series of democratic detours: these are complicated issues that Melia and his team at the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor spend much of their time analyzing. Twitter captures a single moment in diplomatic time, just as an overheard quip might have a generation earlier; let’s hope that Deutch’s tweet is not indicative of the flippancy with which the Fidesz party is approaching all other aspects of governance, or of more general hostility to Hungary’s democratic allies expressing well-grounded concern about the country’s current deviation from its democratic trajectory.
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