America’s Real Russian Allies

Timothy J Colton & Michael McFaul. Foreign Affairs. Volume 80, Issue 6. Nov/Dec 2001.

Mass Support

The terrorist attacks that rocked the United States on September 11 opened a new chapter in the country’s relations with the outside world. Already alliances are shifting, U.S. troops are redeploying, and policymakers are rapidly rewriting their agendas. It remains unclear just what the world will look like once the dust settles. But as we enter a new and undefined era, it is becoming increasingly evident that, just as America’s competition with the Soviet Union defined the second half of the last century, so will its new relationship with Russia help determine the contours of the new one.

So far, both Russia’s president and its people have given the United States vigorous support since September 11. The budding personal relationship between Vladimir Putin and George W. Bush might have had few practical results before that day, but it seemed very much in evidence when Putin became the first world leader to speak with Bush after the attacks, and again when, days later, Moscow pledged wide-ranging Russian support for the American response. Meanwhile, a great many Russians—party leaders, civic activists, businesspeople, and ordinary citizens—have expressed sympathy for those in the United States. According to one Russian poll, 85 percent of Muscovites feel that the attacks were aimed not only at the United States, but at all of mankind.

Putin, of course, has good reason to show solidarity with Washington—at least for now. Russia’s president is keen to link America’s new battle against terrorism with his own country’s campaign against rebels in Chechnya. And indeed, the connection Putin draws is not without merit. After all, Osama bin Ladin has sponsored violence in both Russia and the United States. In the longer run, however, Putin’s pro-American stance may begin to waver. Despite the early cooperation, senior Russian military and intelligence officers are already pushing Putin to retreat to old ways of thinking about international politics—to regard NATO troops in Central Asia with suspicion and to worry more about Iraq’s security than about America’s.

If Putin does return to such Cold War habits, however, he will be moving against the grain of Russian public opinion. Russians’ empathetic response to the attacks on America sprang from something deeper than mere strategic concerns. Russians aligned themselves with the United States in its hour of need—and have been more pro- American in their reactions than their own government—because, in part, of a deep support for democracy. As a number of recent polls show, the Russian people today—despite a decade of unmet expectations since the fall of communism—strongly endorse core democratic values. And they do so, among other reasons, because a sustained Western policy of engagement has encouraged democratic governance within Russia and the country’s integration into the Western community of nations.

Russia’s transition from authoritarianism is far from complete, however. As preoccupied as Washington is with its new campaign against terrorism, inattention to the fragility of Russian democracy would be a huge mistake—and one that could have serious negative consequences for American security. Now is the time for the United States to redouble its efforts to promote democracy within the borders of its former adversary.

Folks Like Us

The spread of democracy across the globe in the last century contributed enormously to the security and well-being of the United States. In both world wars, Americans fought against authoritarian regimes, and after 1945 it was the installation of democratic governments in Germany and Japan that helped convert those nations into American allies. With the advent of the Cold War, the United States became preoccupied with courting anticommunist regimes around the world and paid little attention to whether they were dictatorships or democracies. Time and again, however, it was the democracies on the list that proved to be Washington’s more effective and reliable allies. Meanwhile, the ostensible gains the United States accrued through its partnerships with autocratic forces—such as the shah of Iran, Suharto in Indonesia, the mujahideen in Afghanistan, or the apartheid government of South Africa—were offset by setbacks to American security and embarrassments to American ideals, both of which seemed to inevitably follow from doing business with authoritarians.

In the last decade, meanwhile, nowhere has support for democracy had a bigger payoff than in eastern Europe. The collapse of communism there and the more recent fall of dictators in southeastern Europe have radically improved the continent’s security. And the peace dividend has been even greater in the U.S. relationship with Russia. So long as unreconstructed communists ruled in Moscow, the Soviet Union represented a unique threat to American security. But once the communist regime disintegrated and a new, democratically oriented government began to take hold, this threat to the United States diminished almost overnight. Today the world is no longer haunted by the specter of a Soviet-American nuclear confrontation. In economic terms, meanwhile, the United States has, according to Russia scholar Anders Aslund, saved more than $1.3 trillion. Instead of fighting or financing proxy wars in Vietnam and Angola, the U.S. and Russian militaries now serve side by side in Bosnia and Kosovo. Neither NATO enlargement in eastern Europe nor the alliance’s intervention in Yugoslavia—both of which were bitterly resisted by Moscow—have sidetracked this new relationship. Russian foreign policy has remained focused on incorporating the country into Western and global institutions rather than undermining or counterbalancing the West. And Russia’s response to September’s terrorist attacks in the United States only confirmed this trend—what unites the two countries now often outweighs the issues that divide them.

A change in government is not the only cause for this dramatic shift in Moscow’s behavior. Russia today is also much weaker, militarily and economically, than the Soviet Union was just ten years ago. Even if Russia did want to underwrite anti-American movements in third countries or construct anti-NATO alliances, therefore, it might not be able to. And yet this power differential is not the only thing that explains Russia’s new posture, just as military matters were not the only explanation for Soviet-American enmity during the Cold War.

In fact, Russia’s newly constructive approach to the West should not be surprising. Rather, the fact that a democratizing Russia seeks a positive, peaceful relationship with the democratic United States fits an established pattern in international relations. Almost every democracy in the world now enjoys a cordial relationship with Washington, and no democracies number among its enemies. Not all dictatorships in the world are foes of the United States, but every U.S. enemy—Afghanistan, Cuba, Iraq, Iran, Libya, North Korea, and possibly in the future, China—is a dictatorship.

Skin Deep?

It seems clear, then, that the fall of communism in Russia has served American national security interests well. But these benefits are not irreversible. The political order that emerged under Boris Yeltsin in the 1990s may have been an electoral democracy, but it most certainly was not then and is not now a consolidated liberal democracy. And under Vladimir Putin, president since December 1999, Russia’s fragile democratic institutions have weakened considerably.

Most unappealing has been Putin’s indifference to human rights in Chechnya. Certainly Russia had the right to defend its territorial integrity when, in the summer of 1999, Chechen fighters invaded neighboring Dagestan to liberate that Muslim republic from the Russian Federation. If the initial use of force was justified, however, the conduct of the Russian campaign since then has not been. Wars are always brutal, but Russia’s actions in this campaign have routinely been inhumane, violating the Geneva Conventions and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Putin’s crusade against Chechen “bandits” has been so harsh, in fact, that it has inspired even more fanaticism within Chechnya and thereby made all of Russia less secure.

Also on Putin’s watch, the State Security Service (the former KGB, now known by its Russian acronym, FSB) has stepped up its harassment of investigative journalists, human rights activists, environmental leaders, and Western nongovernmental organizations (NGOS) and religious groups, along with their Russian affiliates. New guidelines on relations with foreigners have abridged Russian academics’ intellectual freedoms; a few scholars have even been accused of treason. The Kremlin has also made it harder for NGOS to receive international funding. And Putin and his surrogates have tried to undermine independent media outlets. The elimination this past spring of Media-Most, the biggest independent media group in Russia and owner of the NTV television network, vividly demonstrated Putin’s intolerance of journalists who dare to criticize him.

Alternative power centers within the state have been haltered, too. In 1999, allies of Putin invented a new party, Unity, to compete in parliamentary elections. Unity’s subsequent capture of almost a quarter of the popular vote helped to make the Duma much more cooperative with the president. A restructuring of the upper house of parliament, the Federation Council, emasculated that body. And although attempts to reassert Moscow’s authority throughout Russia’s regions have been less successful, there has still been an unmistakable tilt toward the center.

This is not to say that some institutional adjustments were not needed after Yeltsin’s reign or that all of Putin’s reforms have been antidemocratic. For example, Putin’s plans for legal reform, which will trim the power of prosecutors and introduce jury trials nationwide, are progressive in spirit and may strengthen democracy in the long run. The president’s economic policies have also been radically liberal and may in due course produce positive consequences for democracy. Nevertheless, ever since Putin came to power, Russia has by and large grown less democratic.

And yet the president remains popular. The breadth of his support, in fact, has led many observers to posit that Russians must actually want an iron hand at the helm—or even a naked dictatorship. Some commentators go a step further to claim that Russians are culturally predisposed—by Orthodox Christianity, by the paternalistic mores of village life, by centuries of tsarist rule, and, most recently, by cradle-to-grave socialism—to favor authoritarianism. From this perspective, Russia’s experiment with democracy in the 1990s was a cultural and historical aberration and the new trajectory is closer to the country’s norm. This argument is not inconvenient for President Putin, and it has been subtly propagated by analysts and politicians in his camp.

Power to the People

Our surveys of Russian grassroots attitudes challenge these pessimistic assumptions. Although our findings do not contradict the fact that numerous features of Russia’s current political scene have become illiberal, they do suggest that the system’s flaws do not stem primarily from popular opinion. Russian citizens may be unhappy with the way their national institutions work, but the majority of them have not spurned democratic values or ideas per se. Even Putin’s own supporters are more pro-democratic than Russia’s authoritarian trend suggests.

For the last decade, Russia’s elected leaders have assured the country’s citizens that the post-Soviet system of government is a democracy. Our polling data testify that Russians on the whole do not believe what they have been told; after a decade of change in government, only 20 percent of Russians categorize their state as a democracy.

In newly democratic countries, dissatisfaction with the chaos and hardship that can attend the introduction of free elections and a market economy often gnaws away at normative support for such changes. Indeed, discontent with the current order is so rampant in Russia that it is no wonder that many citizens are nostalgic for the old days. Most still lament the dismantling of the Soviet Union in 1991. And yet, remarkably, most Russians also still robustly support democratic norms. When asked, “Do you in general support the idea of democracy?” roughly two in three Russians say yes, and fewer than one in five responds negatively. When asked if democracy is the appropriate way to govern Russia, 60 percent of respondents reply that it is a fairly or very good model for the country—almost triple the amount of those who consider it fairly or very bad. And when asked about democracy and its alternatives, a plurality of Russians endorses democracy as the best form of government compared to other systems.

Russians also support actual democratic practices even more strongly than they favor democracy as a concept. When asked if it was important to them that the country’s leaders be popularly elected, 87 percent of respondents to our surveys said it was, and 86 percent said it was the duty of each citizen to vote in elections. Elections, of course, are not the only ingredient of a functioning democracy, but Russian voters also espouse many other democratic procedures. More than 85 percent of those polled reckoned that the freedoms of conscience, expression, and the press were important to them.

Cultural theorists (and, when it suits them, Kremlin propagandists) assert that the Russian people yearn for a strong president unconstrained by other political actors. In fact, Russians seem more comfortable with a balance of power between the president and parliament. And Russians do not want the federal government to have unbridled power over local governors; our surveys suggest that Russians prefer that power be split between Moscow and the regions. Political parties enjoy the least amount of public trust of all Russian institutions. Yet when asked how necessary parties are to making their political system work, many more Russians recognize the need for such parties than do not. The fact that Russians seem willing to accept such organizations (entities they nonetheless deem to be inept, marginal, and ineffective) as necessary evils suggests that their gut knowledge of democratic theory and practice may be deeper than most Westerners tend to presume.

Support for Putin’s war in Chechnya was initially high. But approval of the military campaign is one thing; identification with Putin’s war aim—namely, to keep Chechnya part of Russia no matter what—is another. Our surveys found that public opinion on Chechnya was already polarized shortly after the recent war there began. In the winter of 1999-2000, only 45 percent of respondents strongly or moderately favored keeping Chechnya in Russia “at all costs,” whereas almost as many (33 percent) favored ceding it independence. A poll conducted in the summer of 2001 reveals that more than half of the Russian population favors peace negotiations.

Our surveys also throw cold water on the conventional wisdom about Russian thinking on law and order. When asked to react to the bald statement that democracies “are not any good at maintaining order,” respondents were divided, with slightly more disagreeing (35 percent) than agreeing (32 percent). Russian citizens are also not unanimous in their support of cliches often heard about the inability of democracies to make decisions or execute economic reform. Asked if democracies “are indecisive and have too much squabbling,” more Russians said no (41 percent) than said yes (34 percent). Almost half of our respondents rejected the proposition that in a democracy “the economic system runs badly,” and only 18 percent agreed. Since Russians have ample reason to be disgruntled with their economy and their democracy, these responses again point to a rather refined awareness of the roots of their problems and suggest that, contrary to the expectations of some commentators, a Pinochet-style dictatorship in the name of market reform would not be wildly popular among Russians. Solid majorities disapprove of the declaration of a state of emergency, censorship, and the limitations on foreign travel that would be the price to pay for more order. Russians also staunchly oppose military rule, even though the army is the most respected state institution.

Interestingly, Putin’s own supporters seem no less democratic than the typical Russian citizen. Support for democracy reaches 68 percent among those who claim to have voted for Putin in 2000—a level several percentage points above the national average. Putin voters are also consistently at or above the national average in terms of their acceptance of specific democratic practices and liberal norms. Even on Putin’s signature issue, Chechnya, his supporters are only slightly more enthused than the average citizen about keeping the republic Russian at all costs.

In light of all the difficulties bedeviling the development of democratic institutions in Russia, this level of support for democratic values and practices is encouraging. Having been generally antidemocratic and antiliberal for centuries on end, Russian culture seems finally to have undergone an important transformation.

Steady Support

As the United States embarks on a protracted conflict with a new worldwide foe, it is seeking to mobilize all countries, including Russia, into a new antiterror coalition. In building this alliance, the Bush administration may be tempted not to scrutinize the credentials of those who sign up to fight alongside it. Democratic transgressions within Russia will therefore not rank very high among U.S. policy priorities, especially once Putin starts providing the military assistance he has promised to the new campaign. The openly authoritarian regimes of post-Soviet Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan—which have all also agreed to lend a hand—may enjoy diminished American scrutiny as well.

That would be a mistake. The United States must not forget how important it is to support democracy in Russia, since that country cannot become a complete partner of the Western alliance until it becomes fully democratic. Backsliding in Moscow is still a danger and could pit Russia against the United States. Enhancing democracy in Russia is therefore essential, and the Bush administration can make sure this happens in two key ways: by putting democracy on the agenda of its state-to-state meetings with Russia, especially presidential summits; and by seeking ways to empower Russia’s pro-democratic citizens and society.

Because Putin leans toward Europe, wants good relations with the United States, and evidently values his personal relationship with Bush, American decision-makers already enjoy some leverage in promoting democratic ideas through state channels. Bush and his team should refrain from lecturing Putin about America’s superior political system and highlight instead the benefits of integration into the West—for which democratization is a precondition. Putin has plainly stated that he desires to build capitalism in Russia and to integrate it into Western financial institutions. But Bush should explain to him that capitalism will not thrive in Russia without the entrenchment of democracy. In the decade-long transition of the former Soviet bloc, a correlation has developed between levels of democracy and economic growth. Washington must point this out to Moscow, while also explaining how democratization will facilitate Russia’s participation in European institutions. Putin wants to make Russia a great European power once more. Bush must remind him that today, all European powers are democracies.

Bush should also lead a drive to make Russia’s integration into the West more attainable. A good start would be to push for Russian membership in the World Trade Organization, lowered trade barriers to Russian imports, and relaxed travel restrictions. More boldly, Bush could outline the concrete stages for Russian membership in NATO. And he should be frank about the costs that Russia will pay if it reverts to dictatorship—costs that include expulsion from important Western clubs such as the g-8 group of highly industrialized nations.

In tandem with these state-to-state interactions, Washington should make democracy promotion a bigger part of its assistance programs to Russia. In the last decade, U.S aid to Russia has focused on reducing the nuclear threat, on economic reform, and on humanitarian projects, not on democratization. Although these priorities may have been appropriate in the past, they should now change.

American assistance to Russia today should be channeled more creatively, to take advantage of the democratic inclinations in Russian society. The old formula for democracy was “Get the institutions right, and the people will follow.” This should now be rewritten to read “Represent the will of the people within the state, and the institutions will follow.” Russian society today has grown more democratic than the political structures that govern it. The trick is to make those institutions more reflective of the people as a whole.

The legal sphere offers an example of how this can be accomplished. Almost everyone agrees that Russia needs greater rule of law. Traditionally, Western rule-of-law projects have sought to reform Russian institutions, be they the courts or the police. But this approach ignored the fact that judges will fairly enforce the laws only if society demands their enforcement. Supporting public- interest law clinics or a Russian civil liberties union would therefore be a more effective way to promote the rule of law—from below. Likewise, strengthening political parties and the independent media might be a better way to fight corruption than attempting to retrain bureaucrats at the Ministry of Internal Affairs.

Fortunately, over the last few years, American democracy- assistance programs have started to move toward this society-centered strategy. To make a difference, however, these aid programs need more resources. Amending an electoral law requires targeting only a handful of experts in parliament. To empower national organizations and their causes, however, requires reaching a much wider audience and therefore will be much more expensive, especially in a country as vast as Russia.

Not only should assistance be expanded and refocused, but financial resources should be transferred directly to Russian social actors through small-grants programs. If, as seems likely, Moscow steps up its attempt to tame and co-opt civil society by offering its own grants programs and regulations, outside sources of support will become more important than ever. American funders should not shy away, as they have in the past, from supporting the most politicized groups. Small business networks, trade unions, teachers’ associations, soup kitchens, and Internet entrepreneurs can all also contribute to democracy and so must be part of the equation as well.

One lesson of the 1990s is that spreading information about democracy through education is a cost-effective way to empower people and promote democratic values. Yet Russian universities today offer almost no public policy programs or sophisticated curricula for teaching democracy. At lower levels, Soviet-era ideas and Marxist texts still pervade “social studies” courses. And astonishingly few Russians study in the West: according to the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, in 1999 there were only 5,329 Russian post- secondary students at American schools. To make matters worse, the U.S. government funded only a fraction of them. These numbers should be increased tenfold.

The mass media, meanwhile, provide another important tool. The United States should devote greater resources to Radio Free Europe/ Radio Liberty, the Voice of America, and the Internet, all of which contribute to the free flow of news and information. The need for foreign programming will only grow if the Kremlin continues its crackdown on independent media within Russia. Independent media outlets also deserve more U.S. aid, since they tend to support transparency and force the state to listen more to the people and their demands. More aid should also go to NGOS that track state expenditures and monitor vote counts. The increased ability of Russian society to monitor the government, through both the media and NGOS, will also serve the needs of the legitimate business community. Real democracy and real capitalism can be mutually reinforcing.

International exchanges represent a third way to facilitate the flow of ideas and erode the boundaries between Russian and Western societies. The best way that the United States can promote democracy and free markets is through the American example itself. Military-to- military exchanges, sister-city programs, or internships in U.S. businesses and NGOS can all help expose more Russians to the best that the United States has to offer. Such programs must emphasize how democratic practices improve the daily lives of American citizens, whether through municipal hearings about a new stoplight in a small town or through national elections that force candidates to take substantive stands on big issues.

Finally, American efforts to promote democracy require better measures of and more realistic standards for the pace of change. Today’s emphasis on short-term standards such as the number of NGOS trained or electoral victories by Western-schooled candidates does little to capture the long-term effects of assistance programs. Even in the most fertile of settings in the West, democratic practices took decades, if not centuries, to solidify. Russia is only part way through a root-and-branch transformation of its society, economy, and polity. Assistance programs and evaluations must reflect this, remaining realistic without becoming defeatist.

As Washington embarks on its new war, then, the Bush administration must also keep in mind lessons from the Cold War. That conflict did not end due to successes on the battlefield or in counterintelligence. True peace arrived only after the Soviet regime fell and democratic values began to emerge throughout Russia. That process is still not complete, however. And with the United States in new need of allies, it has become more important than ever.