Time to Lean on Russia


Twenty years ago, soon after the demise of the Soviet Union, Russia’s progress toward freedom and democracy seemed irreversible. As a member of the Council of Europe and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, Russia committed itself to uphold a number of democratic principles and to safeguard basic freedoms and the rights of its people. The Russian Constitution, adopted in 1993, stipulates that Russia is a federal democratic state committed to the rule of law.

Today none of that appears to be true.

The federal status of Russia was destroyed by Vladimir Putin’s shift to a de facto appointment of regional governors. The basic precepts of the rule of law are challenged daily as court decisions are subjected to the interests of the authorities. Dissenters in Russia are silenced and have no legal recourse against such oppression.

Democracy in Russia is in retreat. Elections to the lower house of Parliament scheduled for Dec. 4 have been undermined by the denial of official registration to opposition parties representing different parts of the political spectrum, the last example being the People’s Freedom Party in June.

Whatever credibility these elections still had was erased by the recent announcement that President Dmitri Medvedev and Prime Minister Putin would swap posts after the presidential election is held in March 2012.

In effect, Russians are being presented with a stage-managed campaign between political forces loyal to the Kremlin. Responsibility for this lies solely with the current political leadership.

This poses a major challenge. Russia is an integral player in matters of global security, business and economic relations. The time has come to acknowledge openly and honestly that Russia is not a democracy, but an increasingly fragile state run by an authoritarian regime that aims to bully not only its own citizens but also the rest of the world.

It is time to hold a broad, public debate in the West on how democracy and the rule of law can be supported inside Russia and how the rest of the world should relate to Russia, its rulers and Russian society, including the opposition and independent civil society organizations.

The Helsinki Final Act of 1975 started a process that eased Cold War tensions in Europe and provided a base for civil rights movements in the Communist bloc. This historic document served as a vocal manifesto against antidemocratic regimes in Europe. We aim to initiate a new Helsinki process by opening a discussion on Russian democracy — again in Helsinki — on Nov. 9-10.

Practical steps we might consider include refusing to accept the impending Russian elections as legitimate. Furthermore, Russia should not get deferential treatment in the Council of Europe or O.S.C.E., and the Russian parliamentary delegation should not receive a warm welcome in Strasbourg.

Cooperation with Russian leaders should be conditioned on their compliance with international conventions to which Russia is a party. Moreover, Russian officials involved in corruption and the oppression of freedom should be exposed to real sanctions. However awkward this may be for traditional E.U. realpolitik, it is reasonable in the current circumstances to consider postponing the planned E.U. summit meeting with Russia scheduled for December, after the charade of the elections in the lower house of Parliament. The E.U.-Russia Partnership and Cooperation Agreement currently under negotiation should also better reflect these realities.

It is time that Russia’s true friends speak out.

(Guy Verhofstadt, former prime minister of Belgium, is leader of the Liberal and Democrat caucus in the European Parliament. Mikhail Kasyanov, former prime minister of Russia, is leader of the opposition People’s Democratic Union in Russia.)