The US announced the other day that it was withdrawing from the Russian-American Bilateral Presidential Commission that deals with civil society matters. The commission, set up by in 2009 by Barack Obama and Dmitry Medvedev, was a symbol of the so-called “reset” policy of Washington and Moscow. But now, as many experts believe, the US decision – a response to the “orphan anti-adoption law” – will put an end to this policy.
It is Thomas Melia, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, who announced about the US withdrawal from this commission later last week. He cited “recent steps by the Russian government to impose restrictions on civil society.” “As the government of Russia took a number of actions against civil society last year, this working group is no longer an adequate or effective forum that would promote the expansion and strengthening of civil society,” he said. Nezavisimaya gazeta quotes Melia as saying that joint work in the field of human rights will continue but “we want this work to be of a meaningful nature.”
At the same time, Ellen Barry of The New York Times thinks that what caused deterioration of relations between the two countries’ governments is the victory of Putin in the presidential elections. “Relations between the two governments have come under increasing strain over the last year, as President Putin returned to power accusing American officials of stirring up political dissent in Russia. Nonprofit groups have come under particular pressure, as lawmakers passed new laws…, requiring them to register as ‘foreign agents,’” she writes.
Meanwhile, Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov expressed regret over this US decision, adding that “it means nothing, actually.” “We deeply regret that we’ve been deprived of one of the formats of dialogue, without compensating its absence with a new one… It’s negative for both Moscow and Washington,” The New York Times quotes Peskov as saying. Earlier, in an interview with the journal The National Interest, he emphasized that the relationship between the Russian authorities and the opposition is of no concern for the US and has nothing to do with Russian-American relations. By doing so, Peskov leveled accusations against the US government, which, “in some cases, are in fact a mirror reflection of the accusations Melia has made now,” Gazeta.ru says.
The Day asked Lilia Shevtsova, political scientist, senior research associate at the Carnegie Moscow Center, to comment on Washington’s decision and on how this will affect US-Russian relations:
“The establishment of a working group as part of the US-Russia Bilateral Presidential Commission seemed to me not only dubious, but also hypocritical from the very beginning. This commission and working group were set up is pursuance of the so-called ‘reset’ policy after 2008. This means the so-called ‘cooperation’ between civil societies and active citizens on the two governments’ platform.
“It was also hypocritical to appoint, as the Russian subgroup’s leader, Vladislav Surkov who made a major contribution in the elimination of civil society. I view the American side’s consent to see him in this office as nothing but a glaring instance of cynicism. So this working group can be said to have been ‘conceived in original sin.’ But for this group, the entire ‘rest’ could be reduces to the traditional Realpolitik, which means cooperation of the two states in tactical matters. The Soviet Union and the United States pursued this policy in olden times.
“But the establishment of this group and the very fact that the Obama administration regarded de-linkage of foreign and domestic policies as cornerstone of the ‘reset’ policy meant the following: ‘we pursue a policy towards Russia without paying attention to the latter’s domestic developments.’ I think it is another manifestation of cynicism. Naturally, this undermined the ‘reset’ policy and, in general, the US administration’s policy towards Russia in the eyes of Russian civil society, the Russian opposition, and the liberal wing of the Russian intellectual community.
“The last straw that finally encouraged the Americans to withdraw from this group was the orphan anti-adoption law, dubbed as Herod’s Law and Dima Yakovlev Bill. Before that, in 2012, we saw Putin establish an overtly repressive regime, following a series of events in the past few years.
“The US apparently tried not to irk the Kremlin until now and pretended that the ‘reset’ was proceeding quite successfully. But the passage of this law made it virtually impossible to play this game of imaginations and simulations. Thus, Washington tried to save face when there was nothing at all to save.”
Will this US decision put an end to the “reset” policy?
“The Kremlin buried the ‘rest’ quite a long time ago. It is also a paradox. Putin tried not to speak of it all. And last year, as Medvedev’s rule was drawing to a close, Putin and Lavrov said bluntly: the ‘reset’ is over and we did not benefit much from it. What is more, if the ‘reset’ is going on, it means that ‘the computer hangs,’ to quote Lavrov. The Russian side in fact believes that the ‘reset’ has helped the Kremlin to achieve some tactical goals and now it is time to switch ‘to something else.’ It is quite obvious what this means. The Kremlin has already openly proclaimed a new foreign policy doctrine which is the continuation of Putin’s previous course launched as long ago as 2007. This foreign policy doctrine, now without any makeup, rests on the following principles:
1) do not interfere into Russian internal affairs;
2) do not teach us democracy;
3) adhere to the principle of total sovereignty. In other words, every country, including ours, can do whatever it pleases with its own population. At the same time, we continue full-scale economic cooperation – in trade, investments, etc;
4) recognize our right to pursue our interests within the framework of the Eurasian Union and the entire post-Soviet space.
“This is the Russian interpretation of the conditions for Moscow to switch to the next phase of the ‘reset.’”
What turn do you think the US-Russian relations may take?
“I think these relations will have quite a sobering effect on the American side. The Kremlin will continue to show bellicose aggressiveness – just to a definite point because both countries have certain interests in the field of security and geopolitics. Both Washington and Moscow are aware of having to cooperate. There are also a number of tactical issues, where mutual understanding is possible – take, for example, the Afghanistan transit. Therefore, the policy of tactical cooperation will continue. But it is not ruled out that both sides are working out a new ideological basis and rhetoric that will accompany this cooperation. I even do not rule out that Obama will try again to play up to Putin, as far as building a ‘Potemkin village’ is concerned. In this case, US policies will go on losing face – at least in Russian society.”