In my last posting, I praised Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's early July trip to Poland and Georgia but noted I had reservations about her stop in Baku. Despite the passage of a few weeks, those concerns have not gone away. Nor have worries about the direction in which Azerbaijan is heading. Making matters worse, the United States has been without an ambassador in Azerbaijan for more than a year and the current nominee has been delayed in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC).
In what was an otherwise good trip to the region, Clinton offered the wrong answers during a joint press availability with Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov. In her opening comments, Clinton offered hope that some "difficult cases" involving media freedom and the status of civil society would get resolved in Azerbaijan. But then in response to a question concerning human rights in the country, Clinton touted "a lot of progress" in Azerbaijan in the last 18 years. Her amplification of that initial response only muddied the waters further:
And we continue to support the efforts that are undertaken by the government to expand and protect free expression and independent media, and have called that more be done because we think these are pillars of democracy. I have in the past, and did again, raise the cases of the two young men. And it is something that has a great deal of attention focused on it, not only in our country but around the world.
So, we believe that there has been a tremendous amount of progress in Azerbaijan. But as with any country, particularly a young country -- young, independent country like this one -- there is a lot of room for improvement." [emphasis added]
What efforts to expand and protect free expression and independent media? Sadly, there have been none in Azerbaijan. It is good that democracy and human rights issues are "part of our ongoing dialogue," as Clinton said, but it is important that she get her talking points right. It is good that Clinton raised the case of the two bloggers -- Adnan Hajizada and Emin Milli, jailed last year on spurious charges of hooliganism after they themselves were attacked by unknown assailants -- but within 24 hours of Clinton's departure from Baku, a court sentenced another journalist, Eynulla Fatullayev, to prison for a third time after finding him guilty of "storing drugs" while in jail. Coming immediately after Clinton's visit to Baku, the sentencing of Fatullayev showed real disrespect toward the U.S. secretary of state. In addition, an appeal by one of the jailed bloggers, Hajizada, several weeks later, was rejected by a court because he hadn't admitted guilt or exemplified good behavior while in prison.
Over the past 18 months, I've certainly offered plenty of criticism (constructive, I hope) of the Obama administration, but I've also sought to support positive policy/decisions/rhetoric when warranted. This is one of those positive pieces, with a focus on Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's recent trip to Poland, Ukraine, and the Caucasus. For purposes here, I want to zero in on her Krakow and Tbilisi stops (a future column will be less kind on her visit to Baku, and I've opined elsewhere on Ukraine).
In Krakow, the secretary spoke at the 10th-anniversary meeting of the Community of Democracies. Quite simply, her speech, which focused on the critical role played by civil society in democratic development around the world, was very good. She singled out for criticism the usual suspects - North Korea, Iran, Cuba, Venezuela, and Belarus -- but she also included Russia (not a given in light of the Administration's reset policy), Egypt (which has received soft treatment despite its increasingly anti-democratic trends), and Ethiopia (where the government has imposed laws restricting NGO activity).
In an important rebuff to authoritarian regimes that cry interference in their internal affairs, she explained that American NGOs are permitted to receive funding from sources outside the United States and noted that foreign NGOs are allowed to operate on American soil. "We welcome these groups in the belief that they make our nation stronger and deepen relationships between America and the rest of the world," Clinton stated. "And it is in that same spirit that the United States provides funding to foreign civil society organizations that are engaged in important work in their own countries. And we will continue this practice, and we would like to do more of it in partnership with other democracies." Attendees remarked that Clinton's speech was the highlight of the gathering and inspiration for those listening not just in Krakow but around the world.
In a separate press conference with Polish Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski, Clinton said more or less the right things on moving forward with the Poles on hosting elements of the Obama administration's phased, adaptive approach to missile defense (different from the Bush plan for ground-based interceptors). Putting aside her unnecessary slight of the Bush plan -- she didn't really need to say: "I think that the phased adaptive approach has so many advantages over the plan that it replaced" -- Clinton stressed that the U.S. was prepared to work with the Poles, taking some of the sting out of the badly mishandled announcement of the Administration's missile defense plans last September 17. Sikorski, at least, seemed pleased.
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U.S. policymakers for years have lamented their lack of leverage in pushing for democratic reform and respect for human rights in Russia. Well, now we may have an opportunity, but the question is whether we will make use of it. If Russian President Dmitry Medvedev is serious in wanting our help with his economic modernization agenda, we should insist that he needs to make measurable progress in political liberalization first.
Medvedev has made "modernization" and "innovation" the buzzwords in Russia these days, and he brought that buzz with him to the United States this week. Before arriving in Washington today, Medvedev visited Silicon Valley to study that high technology center in hopes of replicating it in Russia. He has designated an area just outside of Moscow, Skolkovo, and a Russian oligarch, Viktor Vekselberg, to spearhead this effort. During a speech at the St. Petersburg Economic Forum last week, he also promised various economic reforms designed to spur foreign investment in the high-tech field as part of his efforts to diversify Russia's economy away from dependence on exports of natural resources.
The West is eager to get in on the act. The European Union earlier this month launched a "Partnership for Modernization" with Russia. Medvedev met with top representatives from Cisco Systems, Apple, Microsoft, and others to encourage their investment. And the Obama administration, in a June 11 statement announcing Medvedev's trip to the United States, noted that President Obama looked forward to exploring greater cooperation with Russia in "trade, investment and innovation." According to the statement, Obama is "pleased" that Medvedev will visit Silicon Valley and "have the opportunity to review the unique set of factors that has fostered this important center of technological advancement and entrepreneurship."
What's wrong with this picture? Let's begin in Russia. Medvedev's high-tech project so far appears to be driven by a top-down approach. The Russian state plans to pump lots of rubles into Skolkovo, but this contradicts Medvedev's previous pledge to reduce the role of the state in the economy. Throwing lots of money at the problem is more likely to feed corruption than spur innovation. As Vladislav Inozemtsov, director of the Moscow-based Center for Post-Industrial Studies, recently argued, the Russian government is simply "throwing money at ventures...but little is being done to develop innovation from the bottom up." In an interview the other day with RFE/RL, Vladimir Babkin, an expert at the State Duma's committee for science and technology, noted, "Silicon Valley in California was created on the basis of universities. It was a bottom-up growth. In Russia, it's top down, and the goals are unclear."
Moreover, Russia doesn't have a competitive advantage to focus on development of a high technology economy. It spends little of its GDP, comparatively speaking, on research and development. According to the number of patents issued by the United States Patents Office to residents of foreign countries, Russia registered 904 over the past five years; Belgium with one-fourteenth the population of Russia, registered four times as many. Many Russian scientists and engineers have emigrated to more promising prospects overseas (including, fortunately, many smart ones to the United States), leaving Russia suffering still from a brain-drain. Russia's economic advantage, for better or worse, is in natural resources, and most Russian businessmen know that.
When the price of oil plummeted in 2008-09 and Russia's GDP dropped by nearly eight percent last year, Medvedev sought to energize his modernization drive by emphasizing the need for development of a high technology sector. The price of oil has bounced back, albeit not to the highs of two years ago, and pressure to diversify has decreased correspondingly. But Medvedev has not given up and has made Skolkovo the centerpiece of his agenda.
It is one thing for the Googles and Microsofts of the world to invest in Skolkovo; after all, they are accountable to shareholders and will be driven by whether they see the possibility of making a profit in Russia. The bigger question is why the U.S. government should get involved. What policy reason do we have to help Russia develop into a high technology economy, assuming this is even possible?
After all, despite Medvedev's rhetoric about dealing with corruption and rooting out legal nihilism, Russia continues to move in an anti-democratic direction, with no real rule of law or accountability but lots of impunity for murders of human rights activists, critics, and journalists. Pending legislation would expand the powers of the FSB (the KGB's successor organization), and the farcical Khodorkovsky trial continues apace. Russia ranks 146th out of 180 countries on Transparency International's Corruption Index and 63rd out of 137 in the latest Global Competitiveness Report. The "values gap" between our two countries is growing and contributes to diverging interests on key issues. The argument that a Russia with a more vibrant economy over time will become more democratic is belied by the trend of the last decade -- Russia's economy soared (thanks to the rise in the price of oil) but its political situation deteriorated badly.
So, why would the U.S. government want to help Russia become more economically efficient and diverse -- i.e., stronger -- when Russia is becoming more authoritarian? The Obama administration explicitly rejects linkage in its relationship with Russia -- it pursues each issue on a separate track -- and thus won't insist on political modernization in Russia as a precondition for helping Medvedev's high technology pursuits. Such an approach forfeits any leverage we may have to push for liberalization in that country. That is a shame, for a Russia that is reforming economically and politically would indeed be a Russia worth investing in.
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Supporters of the Obama administration's "reset" policy toward Russia tout the New START Treaty, Russian support for sanctions against Iran, transit for Afghanistan across Russian territory, and cooperation in dealing with North Korea and non-proliferation more broadly as the fruits of its success. National Security Advisor Jim Jones cites the reset as one of the main successes in the administration's foreign policy (that, to some, says a lot about its overall foreign policy). There is no denying the vastly improved tone and rapport between the American and Russian presidents compared to the end of the Bush-Putin days. But before people get too carried away, let's focus on two recent developments that remind us of the challenges we face in dealing with Russia.
On May 31, Russian authorities brutally broke up opposition protests in Moscow and St. Petersburg and arrested more than 100 people. A journalist participating in the protest suffered a severely broken arm at the hands of the police. The U.S. National Security Council spokesman issued a statement expressing "regret" at the detention of peaceful protestors ("condemn" would have been a more appropriate verb -- we "regret," for example, the recent death of Russian poet Andrei Voznesensky). While violent suppression of demonstrations is nothing new for Russian authorities, what makes this latest example noteworthy is that it happened just days after an American delegation went to Russia for the second round of the Civil Society Working Group co-chaired by NSC Senior Director Mike McFaul and Deputy Head of the Russian Presidential Administration Vladislav Surkov.
When this working group was first announced last July during President Obama's visit to Moscow, I argued that having Surkov as the chair was comparable to putting Chechnya's brutal leader Ramzan Kadyrov in charge of a working group on stabilizing the North Caucasus. The choice of Surkov, the brains behind "sovereign democracy" (the concept that justifies the regime's crackdown on political opponents) was widely condemned by Russian human rights activists who wrote to Medvedev urging that he be removed from this working group. The U.S. side argued that it had no veto authority over the choice of Russian co-chairs of the various bilateral working groups, but in this case, it would have been better to have nixed the civil society working group than to have had Surkov leading it.
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The Obama administration is already gearing up its push for Senate ratification of the recently signed New START agreement between the United States and Russia, with hearings that began yesterday and a vote possible by the end of the year. As senior administration officials make their case around town at various think tanks and before Congress, they need to do a better job of refining their message to make sure it stands up to scrutiny.
In a speech last week at the Atlantic Council, undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security Ellen Tauscher stated three times that the New START agreement "does not constrain U.S. missile defense programs." Despite the repetition, Tauscher's claim, like that of other Administration officials, is simply not accurate.
Article V, Section 3 of the text states: "Each Party shall not convert and shall not use ICBM (intercontinental ballistic missile) launchers and SLBM (submarine-launched ballistic missile) launchers for placement of missile defense interceptors therein. Each Party further shall not convert and shall not use launchers of missile defense interceptors for placement of ICBMs and SLBMs therein. This provision shall not apply to ICBM launchers that were converted prior to signature of this Treaty for placement of missile defense interceptors therein." This section makes clear that the treaty does indeed constrain one possible way for the U.S. to develop missile defense capabilities. This may not be the way the current administration envisions developing its missile defense system, but that isn't what Tauscher claimed. (A White House fact sheet issued March 26 is more accurate in stating, "The Treaty does not contain any constraints on testing, development or deployment of current or planned U.S. missile defense programs..." [emphasis added].)
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Nothing sums up the sorry state of U.S. policy toward Kyrgyzstan than these contrasting images from last week: at the same time that thousands of Kyrgyz were taking to the streets protesting against their corrupt authoritarian leader, Kurmanbek Bakiyev, Bakiyev's son, Maksim, was arriving in Washington for consultations with U.S. officials. While Kyrgyzstan literally was burning, U.S. officials were prepared for business-as-usual talks with Maksim, who, like his father, has been accused of engaging in massive corruption and human rights abuses. More than 80 people were killed in last week's violence.
For several years, U.S. policy toward Kyrgyzstan has focused almost exclusively on keeping open its military airbase at Manas, through which 50,000 troops passed on their way to and from Afghanistan last month. Bakiyev early last year threatened to close the facility while on a visit to Moscow, which offered $2 billion as an inducement for him to kick the Americans out. But Bakiyev doublecrossed Moscow by agreeing to keep Manas open after the United States agreed to triple the rent it paid from $18 million annually to $60 million and promised another $100 million in aid, including a recently-announced counter-terrorism center.
To those in the Kyrgyz opposition, it seemed the United States was willing to pay Bakiyev virtually any price, including looking the other way from a markedly deteriorating human rights situation, as long as Manas stayed open. Defending against such criticism, State Department spokesman Philip Crowley argued, "We've been very clear in our concerns about the government, its abuses, its corruption." The reality, however, at least in public, is very different.
There are only two statements that can be found over the past few months in which the U.S. has spoken out about the problems in Kyrgyzstan: a January 21 statement from the U.S. Mission to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in Vienna about the murder of a Kyrgyz journalist (which occurred a month before), and the State Department's annual Human Rights Report, released last month and which covers every country around the globe. The U.S. Embassy in Bishkek lists no public statements of concern on its website this year.
Striking in the Human Rights Report is admission that last July's Kyrgyz presidential election, which triggered much of the opposition's fervor, "failed to meet many of the country's international commitments" and was "marred by significant obstacles for opposition parties, intimidation, voting irregularities, and the use of government resources to benefit specific political interests." Such an assessment raises doubts as to whether Bakiyev was the democratically-elected leader of the country in the first place.
During a recent visit to Central Asia, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon voiced concerns about the poor human rights situation in the region. In a speech to the Kyrgyz parliament on Saturday, four days before the situation exploded, Ban said, "For the United Nations, the protection of human rights is a bedrock principle if a country is to prosper. Recent events have been troubling, including the past few days. I repeat: all human rights must be protected, including free speech and freedom of the media."
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A slam against the Obama administration heard with greater frequency these days is that it is much harder on its allies than on its enemies (even former enemies). At the same time that it desperately tries to win over "new friends," the administration treats its old friends either with indifference (e.g., most of Europe) or a critical eye. A perfect example of this is the administration's handling of the recent blow-up with Israel over settlements in East Jerusalem as compared with its response to Russia's announcement last week on nuclear reactors in Iran.
There is no question that Israel deserved pushback for having its interior ministry announce during the visit of Vice President Joseph Biden plans for additional housing in East Jerusalem. Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, who was as surprised as Biden by the announcement, did not deserve the endless and condescending scolding from the Administration, however, including a 45-minute phone lecture from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton after Biden left Israel. Biden handled the response to the Israeli announcement quite well. Why then did Obama and Clinton think they needed to pile on? Do they not have confidence in the vice president? Indeed, it was rather shocking to see Obama administration condemnation of the Israelis continue for days and relations between the two countries reach their lowest point in years. Obama senior advisor David Axelrod went on the Sunday talk shows and called the Israeli move "destructive" and an "insult", even though the offense wasn't even committed by Netanyahu but by a Ministry official in the coalition government.
Fast forward to Moscow end of last week. On the day Clinton arrived in Moscow, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin announced that the Russian-built Bushehr reactor in Iran would be up and running this summer. Put aside the fact that Bushehr is well behind schedule as it is, the point here by Putin was to undercut U.S. efforts to present a unified position on Iran and embarrass the Secretary of State. Where was the firm U.S. response then?
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U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, in her speech on Monday at Georgetown University on "The Human Rights Agenda for the 21st Century," finally grabbed a shovel and started digging out of the hole she had placed herself in on this very issue. With some exceptions, her speech sounded familiar: Many of the passages could just as easily have been delivered by a senior Bush administration official.
That is because promotion of democracy and human rights has been an issue with strong bipartisan support for decades. For many in the Obama administration, however, President Bush discredited democracy promotion and the freedom agenda through the torture at Abu Ghraib and the detentions without trial at Guantanamo Bay, and by forcing democracy on other countries through military means. The Obama team wanted to strike a contrast with the Bush Administration on human rights and democracy issues -- and in the process, created a real mess for themselves.
Clinton's problems started her first day on the job. Given her 1995 speech in Beijing as first lady, which highlighted the importance of human rights, and her track record while serving in the U.S. Senate, many expected Clinton would be a strong proponent of human rights and democracy. Instead, however, she turned into a major disappointment. At her arrival ceremony at the State Department, she said, "There are three legs to the stool of American foreign policy: defense, diplomacy, and development." No mention of democracy.
Clinton dug a deeper hole during her first overseas trip to Asia in February when, on her way to China, she told reporters, "We pretty much know what they [the Chinese government] are going to say" on human rights issues, such as greater freedoms for Tibet. "We have to continue to press them. But our pressing on those issues can't interfere" with other crucial topics, such as climate change, the economy, and North Korea.
The reaction among non-governmental groups such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch was swift and harsh, and deservedly so. Clinton, alas, dug even deeper. During a visit to Egypt in early March, she seemed to downplay the importance of human rights concerns in that country. President Obama bears his share of the blame, too, for declining to meet with the Dalai Lama before his trip to China in November and for not meeting with anyone in China outside official channels (his forum in Shanghai involved a group pre-approved and screened by the Communist Party). The president, at least, has given decent speeches on human rights in places like Moscow, Accra, and Cairo, and then most recently in Oslo. But Clinton has been relatively silent on the subject.
Her recovery began in mid-October in Moscow, when she spoke out forcefully on the deteriorating human rights situation in Russia, met with human rights and civil society activists, and gave an interview to the independent radio station Ekho Moskvy. Her speech on Monday at Georgetown brought her support for human rights even closer to the surface.
Despite arguing in her speech that raising human rights concerns with Russia and China is best done behind closed doors, Clinton proceeded to list abuses committed by the Chinese, including the outrageous arrests of signatories of the pro-democracy manifesto Charter 2008. Regarding Russia, she said, "we deplore the murders of journalists and activists and support the courageous individuals who advocate at great peril for democracy." Where she was on weaker ground was when she defended the administration's outreach to the authoritarian regime in Burma and the decision to return to the U.N. Human Rights Council. Had it not been for the President's extemporizing on Iran in his Oslo speech last week in which he said of the protesters that "they have us on their side," she would not have been able to say much on Iran.
She rightly rejected the false choice that "we must either pursue human rights or our 'national interests.'" Advocating on behalf of human rights is in our national interests. She did not dwell on the problems associated with the Bush administration (a welcome change from speeches she and President Obama have given in the past). She did emphasize developmental rights more than the Bush administration had, stressing that people "must also be free from the oppression of want -- want of food, want of health, want of education, and want of equality in law and in fact."
All in all, a good speech. It's a shame it took Clinton so long to make it and that she had some created such a hole for herself beforehand. Combined with the president's remarks in Oslo last week, Clinton's speech allays some concerns raised by the Obama administration's earlier actions and rhetoric. Now, observers and human rights activists need to make sure that what we heard at Georgetown the other day was not a "check-the-box" kind of exercise. These speeches must be followed up by real actions -- and a great place to start would be to schedule a meeting between the President and the Dalai Lama early in the new year.
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Shadow Government is a blog about U.S. foreign policy under the Obama administration, written by experienced policy makers from the loyal opposition and curated by Peter D. Feaver and William Inboden.