Article in Politics / International / Russia
The U.S. has supported authoritarian regimes, but it cannot be inferred or predicted with any certainty that what follows will be an improvement. We do not know how the pieces will fall, especiallly in their foreign policy posture toward the United States.

First published in National Strategy Forum ReviewVolume 14, Issue 3 Summer 2005 Copyright (c) 2005 Roger P. Hamburg, all rights reserved.

The Bush Administration

The Bush administration has defined a major U.S. strategic interest as the promotion of democracy abroad, particularly as an adjunct to the war against terrorism.

In his second inaugural address, President George W. Bush stated:

“Across the generations we have practiced the imperative of self government because no one is fit to be a master and no one deserves to be a slave. Advancing these ideals is the mission that created our nation. It is the honorable achievement of our fathers, Now it is the urgent quest of our nation’s security and the calling of our time. So it is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world.”

Later in the speech, President Bush states that this objective is not to be imposed by force of arms.

There are strategic advantages to promoting democracy. Natam Sharansky, a former Soviet dissident and Israeli politician, distinguishes between “fear” and “free” societies. The former promotes “doublethink”, an Orwellian term. People are afraid to admit or to confront the reality around them States are governed by rulers who divert internal discontent toward external enemies both real and imagined. Democracies tend to be peaceful in their relations with each other, but other factors such as ethnic, national, and religious animosity as well as resource-related competition are also critical.

The Russian Case

The Russian case, the successor state to the Soviet Union, illustrated the opportunities and delimmas for the U.S. in promoting democracy. Is Russia a “fledgling democracy” or an incipient authoritarian state, an heir to its communist and tsarist past? A recent study addressed this uncertainty with the title “Past Imperfect. Future Uncertain” Churchill once depicted Russia as a “riddle, wrapped inside of a mystery, wrapped inside an enigma”.

Is Russia’s course compatible with U.S. strategic interests and its goal of promoting democratization, particularly in light of the “color” revolutions on Russia’s periphery - “orange” (Ukraine), “rose” (Georgia), and “tulip” (Kyrgyzstan)? These follow the democratic changes among former Warsaw pact members, like Poland, Hungary, and Czech Republic, Slovakia, and the most symbolically significant, a united democratic Germany. All of these states have gone further than Moscow in instituting democratic transformations, free markets, institutionalized political parties, and competitive elections, which are preconditions for democracy.

Mikhail Gorbachev

Former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev did not use force in the fateful year of 1989 to stem the tide of revolution in Eastern Europe that culminated in the tearing down of the Berlin wall. Many in the Politburo and elsewhere feared a ‘domino effect” that would ultimately threaten the unity of the Soviet Union if Gorbachev did not respond forcefully by military intervention. However, none of his opponents coalesced around an alternative policy to nonintervention. The decline of the Soviet economy and military setbacks in Afghanistan and Angola led to a belief in the declining efficacy of military intervention. When Gorbachev intervened in Georgia and Lithuania in early 1991, in part to cmopendate for earlier nonintervention, he did so in the face of domestic opposition - fitfully and halfheartedly.

Gorbachev hoped to liberalize and reform the Soviet Union trying to keep it intact. He was succeeded by Boris Yeltsin, a semi-populist who presided over the consequences of the dissolution of the USSR and Soviet-style communism. He was perhaps more “democratic” in style than Gorbachev. but did not create a democratic political party. In addition, his rambling, chaotic personal style, perceived corruption and ties with “the oligarchs” who had made fortunes at the “fire sale” of state property were widely resented at home and abroad. Yeltsin and the oligarchs took the blame for the economic privations of many in the late 1990w, even among Russian liberals.

Vladimir Putin

Russian President Vladimir Putin, an ex-KGB officer, was appointed by Yeltsin as a “take charge” ruler after he resigned. He has no well-developed ideology ahd his “United Russia” party consists of disparate individuals and thoughts that run the political spectrum. He has been criticized for appointing provincial governors who were formerly elected to strengthen control from the Kremlin. Some of the criticism against Putin is a response to the terrorist debacle at Beslan in southern Russia. He has sought to increase control over “the oligarchs” and their political influence in the Khordokovsky affair in the Yukos energy conglomerate. He has largely neutralized the electronic media as an outlet for opposition voices. He has never strongly supported “the rule of law” and has infringed on the independence of the courts. His policies in the interminable war in Chechnya have also been criticized at home and by the international community.

Still, Russians do speak out, especially in the print media. Unlike the U.S. media, they may not reach most of the population, especially the young. They are free to travel and, as one Russian journalist said in August 1991, they could have backed the plotters against Gorbachev, but chose not to do so.

Unstable Political Chameleon

Russia is at best an unstable political chameleon. It has no institutionalized, organized political parties, the liberal opposition is weak, and there is no stable link between a rudimentary civil society of interest groups and the state. There is concern over the spectre of “Weimar Russia” a union of the “reds” and “browns” (extreme nationalists). Elements of both groups proclaimed on May Day, 2005 (as the 60th anniversary of VE Day in Europe, May 9, 1945 approached) that Stalin was responsible for the victory and called for a national referendum on the restoration of socialism. There are dangers of further authoritarian regression.

The U.S. must criticize the handling of the Khordokovsky affair which has hurt the Russian economy and domestic business confidence and has had an adverse effect on foreign investment. The U.S. can exhort at the state-to-state level and in other venues, but it needs Russia for the war against terrorism and the nonproliferation of weapons of mass destruction. The U.S. can help to strengthen pro-democratic forces in Russia, but excessive criticism could lead o a self fulfilling prophecy, a “backlash” within Russia itself.

Supported Authoritarian Regimes

The U.S. has supported authoritarian regimes, but it cannot be inferred or predicted with any certainty that what follows will be an improvement. We do not know how the pieces will fall, especiallly in their foreign policy posture toward the United States. The U.S. can support democratic evolution, but it will not always be possible or wise to eschew cooperation with non-democratic regimes, especially in Asia with the next geopolitical rival lurking over the horizon - China.

However, supporting such regimes increases the possibility that the most authoritarian elements suppressed in the past will take power if these regimes fall, including the Islamic “holy warriors”. On the other hand, if these elements suppressed must compete with others in a democratic process there is a possibility that the process itself will transform them This may be occurring in Jordan, but I leave that for others to examine.

Roger P Hamburg Identity Verified

About the Author 

Roger P Hamburg
PhD U of Wisconsin, political science 1965 specialize in American foreign and military policy Soviet and now Russian politics and foreign po

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