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Across the Former Soviet Union After Summit, Jury’s out on Whether U.S. Can Persuade Putin on Democr

February 28, 2005
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Though relations between Russia and the United States have come a long way since the fall of communism, in some ways the U.S.-Russian summit in Slovakia harkened back to the years when the talks between the two superpowers were marred by differences over democracy and human rights. Since Russian President Vladimir Putin was re-elected almost a year ago, the country has moved toward authoritarianism, and away from integration with the West.

The slide away from democracy is growing — efforts that include the sidelining of any political opposition to Putin, the effort by the Kremlin to create a single-party hegemony and the end of direct popular voting.

Despite these troubling trends, however, until last week it seemed that Washington would continue to work with Putin because of Russia’s importance as an ally in the war on terror.

But Russia’s domestic issues figured fairly high on the agenda at the Feb. 24 summit in Bratislava.

Responding to Washington’s concerns about Russia’s commitment to democratic principles — such as the rule of law, protection of minorities and a commitment to political debate — Putin denied that Russia has rolled back any post-Soviet democratic freedoms.

“Russia has made its choice in favor of democracy,” he said, repeating his commitment to the universal principles that undergird all democracies by saying Russia is not going to become “any kind of special Russian democracy.”

Back at home these remarks were taken with a grain of salt by many Russians — Jews among them — who say Putin is only paying lip service to democracy. His real policies, those critics say, have little to do with the principles he proclaims.

“Here we go again,” said Dmitriy Aronovich, a middle-aged Muscovite at a Moscow JCC last Friday afternoon. “It’s like in the Soviet times. You say one thing, and do almost the opposite.

“There has been a world of difference lately between what our president is saying in public and what is happening in reality,” Aronovich continued. “I find it hard to understand how he is strengthening democracy when so much has been done to strangle this very democracy.”

One of the issues President Bush raised at the summit was the position of minorities in Russia. Many Jewish officials in the United States are worried about a recent public discussion in Russia about the role Jews themselves play in causing Russian anti-Semitism. That debate was triggered by a rabidly anti-Semitic letter signed by a group of Russian legislators.

While Putin and Russian officials dislike what they see as U.S. meddling in their internal affairs, some Russian Jewish activists believe that the safety and well-being of Russian Jews are, to a great extent, in the hands of policy-makers in Washington.

If questions of democracy are once again included on the agendas of future summits, as they were in Slovakia, Russian Jews are divided on whether such discussions will benefit them. Some worry that such discussions, which irritate Putin, might backfire.

A leading Moscow rabbi thinks that the United States must continue to press Russia.

“Russian Jews are much more concerned with the situation in Russia than President Bush is,” Pinchas Goldschmidt, Moscow’s chief rabbi, said. “I speak to people, and people are very much concerned” about the country’s general political climate.

The Federation of Jewish Communities is Russia’s largest and most politically influential Jewish group. It’s known to have good relations with the Kremlim.

The federation’s spokesman, Boruch Gorin, said he, too, welcomed Western democracies’ attempts to correct Russia if it “allows a rollback from democracy.”

But, he warned, such criticism could prove counterproductive

“For the masses, when the West isn’t happy with Russia that would be the best proof that Russia is doing the right thing,” he said.

“This is the reality, and one has to take this into account. Such issues have to be treated in a delicate way,” he said.

A leading human rights activist said that even if there is reason to fear that U.S. interference could irritate many Russians and add to a rise in the country’s isolationist mood, such “meddling” into Russian affairs would benefit both Jews and the larger society.

“It is very good when the international community speaks out on the ways of democracy in Russia,” said Alexander Brod, director of the Moscow Bureau on Human Rights. “These issues are completely relevant to the Jewish situation here, because the safety of Jews and other minorities is closely dependent on the state of democracy.”

But Brod acknowledged that neither Western politicians nor Western Jews are likely to play a decisive role in helping Russia solve its problems with democracy.

He noted that the parts of the recent U.S. State Department report on anti-Semitism that deal with Russia have been met with some hostility from Moscow officials.

“Still such shows of concern on the part of the United States are triggering discussion here and can eventually prompt Russian authorities to make some steps, though small, but real,” he said.

A single meeting between Bush and Putin can’t be expected to solve the issue, Goldschmidt said.

And, he added, something else is missing in Russia that would enable the country to make greater strides as it moves toward establishing a more open and democratic society.

“Even if all these issues are becoming a serious issue at such summits, I believe for democracy to develop you need the internal will of the people,” he said. “This isn’t exactly what I see in this society today.”

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