So much for the Obama administration’s famous “reset” button.
The latest evidence that the U.S.-Russian relationship can’t be mended with mere slogans is Vladimir Putin’s vitriolic attack on Hillary Clinton this week, in which the current prime minister and soon-to-be president essentially accused the Secretary of State of fomenting an internal revolution inside Russia by directing opposition protestors to rally against this weekend’s sham parliamentary election results. “She set the tone, gave the signal, and the signal was heard by certain activists,” an angry Putin charged. “They heard this signal and with the help of the State Department, they started active work.”
Clinton’s crime? Expressing doubts about the fairness of Russia’s elections this weekend and insisting that Russian voters “deserve a full investigation of electoral fraud and manipulation.” As Clinton was quick to note, she was hardly alone in these concerns. No less than Mikhail Gorbachev, the former Soviet premier and General Secretary of the Communist Party, has said that the election results were “a lie” and should be annulled.
There can be little doubt the election results were fraudulent. For starters, all but fringe or Kremlin affiliated parties were banned from participating. Meanwhile election monitors like Golos, Russia’s sole independent election watchdog, where subjected to a sustained campaign of harassment by security officials and state-run television organs. Despite that, and despite Putin’s evisceration of most independent media over the past decade, numerous reports surfaced of election fraud, with confirmed accounts of young people being ferried to different election stations to vote multiple times. Amateur videos captured election officials stuffing ballot boxes. Incredible voting tallies – including the 99.5 percent of the vote that Putin’s United Russia party received in places like Chechnya – all pointed toward a rigged result.
All of this has become the norm in Russian elections. What might explain Putin’s temper tantrum is that, despite being rigged, the elections still resulted in losses for Putin’s party, which won less than 50 percent of the vote – a significant drop from the 64 percent United Russia claimed as recently as 2007.
The most hopeful interpretation of that unexpected result is that another corruption-plagued election, combined with the prospect of Putin’s return as president for another 12 years, has proved too much for even the previously passive and politically fragmented Russian public. Thus, recent days have seen thousands of demonstrators turn out in the streets of Moscow and other major cities to protest the election result and to demand a “Russia without Putin.”
The official response has been typically severe. In Moscow, the government ordered some 52,000 police and paramilitary troops to crush the nascent protests. The government also launched a crackdown on activists and opposition leaders, most prominently the popular anti-corruption crusader and blogger Alexei Navalny. Navalny, whose description of United Russia as the party of “crooks and thieves” has become a rallying cry among the opposition, was among the hundreds of activists arrested this week.
Putin’s allegation notwithstanding, Hillary Clinton did not encourage this uprising against corruption, admirable though that might have been. As of this writing, the State Department had not even commented on the Russian protests. This would be in keeping with the Obama administration’s policy of offering only muted criticism of Russia’s internal repression.
From the onset, the administration seemed to believe that it could curry Russian favor through a combination of strategic concessions and diplomatic indulgence. On the strategic front, the administration pointedly scrapped Bush-era plans for a missile defense system in Eastern Europe, which was strenuously opposed by Russia, settling instead for upgrading existing missile defenses in Europe to focus on short and medium-range ballistic missiles from the Middle East. In the diplomatic arena, the administration cultivated good relations with Dmitry Medvedev, Putin’s former deputy and his successor as president, believing him to be a modernizer and a reformer who could nudge Russia toward political reform.
It is now clear that the administration has failed on both tracks. While Russia initially welcomed the concession on missile defense, it has since reversed course and stepped up its belligerence. Just last week Russia opened an anti-missile radar station in the Baltic Sea area of Kalingrad. A purely symbolic move given that Europe’s missile defense systems pose no threat to Moscow, it nevertheless carried an unmistakable message of Russian rigidity. The administration’s courtship on Medvedev meanwhile came to naught for the simple reason that he has never been the real authority figure in Russia. Power has always resided with Putin, a fact confirmed earlier this year by Medvedev’s docile agreement to step aside so that Putin could resume his office.
Those mistakes are clear. The danger now is that the administration could bow to Putin’s latest rebuke by turning away from Russia’s growing opposition movement. While that movement remains disorganized, and may never become a powerful enough force to oust Putin, it represents a wholesome awakening in the country to the damage that Putin’s authoritarian regime has done both to Russia’s political system and its body politic. It would be a shame if Putin’s ridiculous charges of subversion convinced Clinton and the rest of the Obama administration that it should remain silent as the Russian government attempts to snuff out the welcome sparks of opposition that its latest electoral theft has kindled.
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