A response to the open letter to heads of state and government of the European Union and NATO of Sept. 28, 2004.
As academics, business persons, journalists and former government officials specializing in Russian affairs, we take exception to the characterization of Russian political developments under President Vladimir Putin as a slow but steady slide into dictatorship.
We feel that, in their eagerness to have an impact on Western policy toward Russia, our colleagues have oversimplified Russia's complex reality, minimized the challenges that country now faces, and come up with the wrong prescriptions.
The core of their indictment is that, since coming to office, Putin has "systematically undercut the freedom and independence of the press, destroyed the checks and balances in the Russian federal system, arbitrarily imprisoned both real and imagined political rivals, removed legitimate candidates from electoral ballots, harassed and arrested NGO leaders, and weakened Russia's political parties."
None of these is an entirely fair or accurate portrayal of the issues.
While recent developments in Russian politics are cause for serious concern, it is important to keep them in perspective, and to remember that the end of Russian democracy has been confidently predicted each year since 1991.
The open letter calls upon Western leaders to "speak the truth about what is happening in Russia." Our goal is more modest; not to tell people what "the truth" is about Russia, but to urge a more balanced approach. Lopsided assessments cannot achieve our common goal of fostering Russian democracy and facilitating Russia's integration with the West.
A few examples will serve to illustrate the point. While they are by no means a full statement of the counter-arguments, upon which individuals may differ, they suffice to show that democratic development under President Vladimir Putin has had ups as well as downs.
On the press:
While, deplorably, major national television channels have been effectively placed under government oversight under Putin's watch, this is not the whole story when it comes to freedom of information in Russia today. In fact, since Putin became president the number of new newspapers, magazines and books published in Russia has actually increased by almost 10 percent annually, and almost all of these new publications are owned by private companies. Of the country's 35 major media holdings only four were wholly state run in September 2003. This leaves 40,000 magazines and newspapers, and 200 local television stations, of which more than a third are now financially
self-sufficient, compared to only 10 percent five years ago.
Even on national television critical voices have not been absent from the political debate. During the parliamentary elections of December 2003, opposition leaders appeared regularly on national television.
Since the Beslan crisis, Vladimir Ryzhkov, a stalwart young parliamentary critic of Putin, has appeared frequently on national television to counter the president's proposals for restructuring the government. It simply cannot be said that criticism of government
policy is absent from the airwaves.
On checks and balances:
Just over 10 en years old, the Russian federal system is clearly still evolving. Under President Boris Yeltsin a system emerged that allowed local governors to set up their own local fiefdoms, flaunting federal authority and passing laws that often violated the Russian constitution.
In less than three years, Putin has managed to harmonize most federal and local legislation. Whereas in 1999 nearly a third of local laws contradicted the Russian constitution, by 2003 nearly 95 percent of local legislation had been brought into conformity with federal law.
The real question is whether federalism is the proper place to look for checks and balances. It would make sense to use federalism as the main check and balance on central power only if one does not want to have any effective central power.
Most people in the West, however, do not regard Italy or Britain as less democratic for eschewing significant local balances to central power. They do not chastise Poland for appointing its regional governors, or France its prefects. Is it appropriate to demand of Russia a radically decentralized form of federalism, which we would never agree to for ourselves?
On the judiciary:
Under the new Criminal Code and Code of Criminal Procedures passed by Putin, anyone arrested in Russia must be presented to a judge within 48 hours, who must rule on the validity of the arrest. Within two weeks (one month for those suspected of having links to terrorism) the accused must be formally charged with a crime or released. Putin cannot arrest anyone. Arrest warrants can only be issued on the basis of a judge's order.
Nationwide jury trials are another significant Putin accomplishment, and reforms are continuing: in December 2003 Duma elections struck down restrictions on media coverage of elections; in March 2004 the Justice Ministry announced that, due to changes in the penal code, it would be reviewing the sentences of more than a third of the prison population; in June 2004 the Constitutional Court issued several rulings strengthening defendant's rights. In sum, the Russian court system, while not perfect, is becoming an important instrument in the
defense of civil rights.
On elections and NGOs:
While there have been electoral irregularities at many levels, most deplorably in the North Caucasus, where legitimate democratic procedures and broad political access are vital to stability, it is hard to argue that national elections are significantly less competitive now than they were under Yeltsin. In the most recent round of national Duma elections in December 2003, 12 national parties received federal campaign financing, an average of nine candidates competed for a seat in the national legislature, and 54 percent of incumbents lost their seats.
There are more than a half million non-governmental civic organizations in Russia now, whereas four years ago experts put that number at only 100,000. When, in 2001, Putin sponsored the country's first national gathering of non-governmental organizations, the Civic Forum, it was widely seen as a move to eliminate their independence.
It did nothing of the sort, however, and we should learn from this to take alarmist predictions with a grain of salt.
Moreover, several of Putin's initiatives on behalf of NGOs suggest anything but harassment. Earlier this year, when the Duma was considering imposing controversial restrictions on public meetings, Putin reminded deputies that Russian legislation must conform to the European Convention on Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms. In the aftermath of the Beslan tragedy, Putin restated his commitment to strengthening civil society, expressed support for the creation of a new national body where such groups could exercise public oversight of the government, and proposed national funding for NGOs.
On political parties and regional government:
Putin has consistently stressed the importance of political parties to making the political system more accountable, and proposed a number of legislative initiatives to strengthen their influence. In 2002, the national legislature passed a bill requiring party list
voting in all regional legislative elections. His latest controversial initiative, to make national party lists the basis for the federal parliament, has long been in the works. It is supported by some Russian legal scholars precisely because it would strengthen the role of parties in the political process, a necessary step toward true
parliamentary oversight of government. Interestingly, had this rule been in place in the last parliamentary election it would have significantly reduced the number of seats won Putin's party.
To be sure, the proposed system of gubernatorial appointments raises many troubling issues. While potentially helpful in limiting local corruption and reinforcing compliance with federal authority, it could
also diminish local accountability and access. Still, there are two more readings at which these issues will be discussed, as well as the prospect of judicial review. Already, the head of the Central Electoral Commission has proposed that changes be made only for a temporary 10-year period. Why not allow the constitutional process to
take its course, and raise Western concerns during the process in a way that connects with Russian realities, rather than rush to judgment and, in effect, write-off Russia?
In sum, the evidence does not support the bald claim that under Putin Russia is "breaking away from the core democratic values of the Euro-Atlantic community." Of course there is still much work to be done, and there are contradictory elements within Russian policies.
How could it be otherwise after the total collapse of the country's previous political, social and economic institutions? Obviously, democratic institutions and patterns of behavior must be reinforced.
Ignoring Russia's real democratic accomplishments under both Yeltsin and Putin, however, can only lead to mutual misunderstanding, and end in the revival of hostility between Russia and the West.
There is a better way. It begins by recognizing that Putin is trying to bring Russia closer to the West, not move it further away. It is precisely his deep seated conviction that Russia must become an integral part of the Western community that has allowed the previously unthinkable to occur -- NATO's expansion into the Baltic
States, Russian logistical support for US forces in Afghanistan, U.S. bases in Uzbekistan, and military advisers in Georgia.
Disengaging from a Russian government that is so clearly desirous of strong ties with the West can only encourage those inside Russia who argue that the West is implacably opposed to a strong Russian state.
The unfortunate impression fostered by the wording of the open letter is that Russians must choose between effective government and democratic values. Given this Hobson's Choice, Russians will of course prefer the former, particularly after the tragedy of Beslan. But, as Putin never tires of saying, this is a false choice. Russia simply has no other option but to simultaneously strengthen both state and civic institutions.
Western policies have indeed failed to contribute to Russian democracy, not because we closed our eyes to creeping authoritarianism, but because we often ignored the importance of strong and effective Russian state institutions. Instead of addressing Russia's emergence from communism as a problem of state-building, we often simplistically cheered the collapse of state capacity in Russia, treated those who opposed state institutions as heroes, while supporting those who at election time could barely muster 5 percent of the popular vote. Could there be a clearer recipe for disaster in our relationship?
A better policy begins with a more balanced portrayal of Russian society and its mix of both democratic and authoritarian elements.
Learning to view Russia as part of the West, rather than as the largest remaining remnant of the "evil empire," would also help to lift the clouds of suspicion that still linger from the Cold War.
Policy differences with this or that Russian government could then be treated pragmatically, rather than as apocalyptic portents of the imminent demise of democracy.
The task of forging a new relationship, however, cannot be Russia's alone. It requires Western partners who are willing to listen to all segments of Russian society, willing to re-evaluate their stereotypes about Russian political culture, and, ultimately, willing to embrace
Russia as a necessary and vital part of the Western community.
Arthur E. Adams, professor emeritus, Ohio State University, Columbus, Ohio
John Anderson, partner, Global Emergency Response, Calgary
Bruce W. Bean, Stuart, Fla.
R. E. "Rusty" Butler, executive director, Utah-Russia Institute, Orem, Utah
John Colarusso, McMaster University, Hamilton, Ont.
Ralph Davis, Russian Military-Security Media Coverage newsletter, Mishawaka, Ind.
Patricia E. Dowden, member, board of directors, Center for Citizen Initiatives, Philadelphia
William Dunkerley, Russian Media Business Consultant, New Britain, Conn.
David D. Foglesong, Rutgers University, New Brunswick, N.J.
Gleb Glinka, Senior Partner, Glinka & Schwidde, Cabot, Vt.
Jeffrey Hahn, Villanova University, Villanova, Pa.
Wolfgang G. Heenen, chief executive officer, MX Russia Independent Research, Mainburg, Germany
Dale R. Herspring, Kansas State University, Manhattan, Kan.
George E. Hudson, Wittenberg University, Springfield, Ohio
Carol G.C. Hunter, CEO, FGI International, Omaha, Neb.
Simon Huxtable, Rowland Hill House, London
Vadim Kapustin, president, Russian Digital Alliance, Alexandria, Va.
Eric Kraus, Chief Strategist, Sovlink, Moscow
Peter Lavelle, Moscow
Sarah Lindemann-Komarova, Siberian Civic Initiative, Novosibirsk, Russia
Edward Lozansky, president, American University in Moscow, Washington, D.C.
Christopher Marsh, Baylor University, Waco, Texas
Arkady Murashev, president, Freedom and Democracy Institute, Moscow
Alexei Pankin, editor, Sreda media magazine, Moscow
Nicolai N. Petro, University of Rhode Island, Kingston, R.I.
Alexander Rahr, German Council on Foreign Relations, Berlin
Rudy P. Schmitt, Corporate Transport Management, Moscow
Klaus Segbers, Free University of Berlin, Berlin
Mark George Sleboda, Chair-Democrats Abroad Russia, Moscow
Vlad Sobell, economist, Faversham, Britain
Luc Stenger, University Aix-Marseille 3, Marseille, France
Ira Straus, U.S. coordinator, Committee on Eastern Europe and Russia in NATO, Washington, D.C.
Aleksei Stukanov, Fulbright-Kennan Institute Research Scholar, Woodrow Wilson International Center, Washington, D.C.
Sharon Tennison, president, Center for Citizen Initiatives, San Francisco
Zoltan Vigh, Senior Foreign and Defence Policy Editor, TV2 Television, Budapest, Hungary
Robert Bruce Ware, Southern Illinois University, Edwardsville, Ill.
Paul M. Weyrich, Chairman and CEO, Free Congress Foundation, Washington, D.C.
Affiliations for identification purposes only.
For other supporting signatures, please visit npetro.net/openletter.html
(United Press International's "Outside View" commentaries are written by outside contributors who specialize in a variety of issues. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of United Press International. In the interests of creating an open forum, original submissions are invited.)