U.S. needs to carefully plot engagement with Russia

The bill on President Dmitry Medvedev’s desk that expands the powers of the KGB’s domestic successor would seem to confirm our worst fears about Russia’s political development. But the story of how it got there shows that Russia’s political transformation is still unfolding and reminds us that the United States has a role to play in shaping it.

The proposed law would give the Federal Security Service (FSB) authority to issue warnings to individuals whose actions, though not illegal, «create the conditions for a crime.»

Human rights activists and opposition groups have condemned the legislation, citing fears that the powers will be used to preemptively silence the government’s political opponents. Memorial, Russia’s leading rights watchdog, has noted the similarities between the bill and a 1972 decree that allowed the KGB to warn citizens not to engage in «anti-social activities that contradict the state security of the USSR,» even if those activities did not violate laws. The «warnings» were used to intimidate Soviet dissidents.

Medvedev is unlikely to veto the measure, as he has taken credit for proposing it, dashing misplaced hopes that he is some sort of liberal foil to Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, a former KGB lieutenant colonel. So is this yet another nail in the coffin of Russian democracy?

Perhaps. But that’s not the whole story.

As bad as it is, the bill could have been a lot worse. During the legislative process, rights groups succeeded in getting removed provisions that would have allowed the FSB to publish its admonitions, to summon a person to receive a warning and to impose prison sentences of up to 15 days as punishment for refusal to appear. A mechanism to appeal the warnings was also inserted.

This episode demonstrates that politics, however warped, still exists in Russia, and that civil society, however marginalized, still plays a role in public life. While far from fully democratic, Russia is not a one-party dictatorship.

The policy challenge for the United States is how to foster those trends that might lead Russia toward a more open political system while counteracting those that might take it in the other direction.

Some argue that the Obama administration’s major expansion of government-to-government engagement (the «reset») on issues it considers top global challenges, such as preventing the proliferation of nuclear materials and stabilizing Afghanistan, makes the situation worse. They contend that this engagement implies an endorsement of the Kremlin’s limits on domestic freedoms and empowers a government that is irreconcilably hostile to those freedoms.

But done right, engagement with Moscow could be important to influencing Russia’s development in positive ways.

First, improved ties increase the chances that the United States can express concerns about what’s happening in Russia without the discussion devolving into a shouting match. The past decade has shown that a climate of antagonism between the governments makes discussions of these issues impossible. Whether such discussions lead to change is another question, but having them is a good thing, especially when the alternative — public finger-wagging — creates more backlash than progress.

Second, engagement undercuts the «fortress Russia» developmental model, which closely links greater confrontation with the United States to ever tighter political controls, a closed economy and domination in the former Soviet region. It deprives the Kremlin of the specter used to justify its turn away from open politics: the West as the enemy at the gates.

With that bogeyman gone, it is no longer credible to label any nongovernmental organization (NGO) that receives Western funding part of a «fifth column» or to equate pro-Western policies with treason. Engagement creates space for those groups to operate domestically and for thosearguments to be heard. It also increases Russian citizens’ exposure to the United States and its political system, through increased travel, trade or more frequent positive coverage on (tightly controlled but widely watched) TV news.

Finally, successful governmental engagement will, over time, raise the cost to the Kremlin of actions that would undermine ties. If Moscow has something to lose, it might (or at least has more incentive to) think twice.

Robust engagement with the government must not entail ignoring difficult issues and must be complemented by direct engagement with society. On this score, the Obama administration says the right things and is trying new ideas, such as holding parallel civil society meetings during presidential summits, but its delivery has been somewhat lacking.

Yet even if U.S. execution were perfect, the impact of its actions is likely to be diffuse, and results, if they come at all, will appear over time. Engagement requires a degree of patience that Washington seems incapable of mustering. But if we want to contribute to the development of a Russia in which there are fewer examples of the kind of repressive law that Medvedev is about to sign and more civic activism in the legislative process, such as the NGO involvement that made the legislation slightly less objectionable, we have no better option.

Samuel Charap, a fellow in the National Security and International Policy Program at the Center for American Progress.