poemless. a slap in the face of public taste.

January 21, 2010

Lilia Shevtsova

Lilia, Lilia, the road to Hell is paved with good intentions… It’s also paved with selfishness, arrogance, ignorance and Washington Post columns. (Personally, I don’t believe in Hell, but on the off chance I am wrong, I won’t be writing any WaPo columns. And I am not going to try to save Lilia’s soul by telling her to shut up. I’m more interested in saving our collective sanity by illustrating why we should just quietly ignore her. )

Appeasement, in slacks.

I. Lilia’s Article.

On January 5th, Lilia Shevtsova wrote an article in Foreign Policy Magazine entitled, “The Kremlin Kowtow: Why have Western leaders and intellectuals gone soft on Russia’s autocracy?” I did not read this article when it came out, but it turns out I didn’t really need to, since I had read a Washington Post article she and several other Russian intellectuals had authored on the eve of Obama’s trip to Moscow last year. Which pretty much said the same thing. From the Washington Post article, “False Choices For Russia”:

We object, for example, to the basic proposition of calling for a return to realpolitik because some believe that the worsening of Russian-American relations was mainly caused by Washington’s insistence on “tying policies to values.” The result, some American “realists” argue, is that the United States needs to build a new relationship with Russia based on “common interests and common threats.”

The humanity! Mr. Obama, you can’t just go around the world building relationships based on “common interests and common threats,” relationships that call into account matters such cause and effect or human behavior. Think of the children! I mean the liberals! Anyway, you get the picture. She doesn’t want want the U.S. to play ball with Russia without a “values” clause that has some gleaming white American teeth.

Now she is upset with European leaders’ willingness to play ball with Russia, despite its allegedly brutal autocratic regime. Before we get to the finer points of this batty argument, I will remind you what it looks like when the whole civilized world refuses to play ball with a country based on its perceived lack of democracy: North Korea. How’s that working out for human rights in North Korea, Lilia? Now on to her article in FP:

II. My Response.

Or, excerpts from Lilia’s FP article, interspersed with my responses. She begins:

At a conference last month in Berlin, I witnessed another example of this divide. When I started to raise the question of democratic standards in Western-Russian relations, I was interrupted by another Western attendee. “You irritate us,” he said. “International relations are not about values; they are about power!” If he is right, Russian liberals will have to reconsider their expectations about the Western opinion-leaders they have long counted on for moral support and understanding.

She seems to suffer Applebaumian paranoia. When people say, “You irritate us,” they are not trying to dismiss your cause. They mean, “You irritate us.”

And moral support? Understanding? Western opinion-leaders? Either you own a bank I don’t know about or it’s time we had “the talk.” Western opinion-leaders didn’t get to be Western opinion-leaders by caring about democracy and human rights and you. During the Cold War people like you made the news. Perhaps you thought the leaders in the West really cared about democracy and human rights, that those like you were more than ideological pawns in a global game. But then in 1991 something crazy happened, and now you refuse to part with your dissident rockstar status. Profoundly ironic. You don’t want a return to the Soviet Union, just to the leverage it gave you. So forgive me if it seems interesting that you should go around fear-mongering about a return to the Soviet Union. Anyway, it’s time to wake up and smell the coffee, Lilia. The whole rest of the world’s leaders are just as selfish as Russian ones.

I’m sorry – this still baffles me: “Russian liberals will have to reconsider their expectations about the Western opinion-leaders they have long counted on for moral support and understanding.” You really have no idea what team you are playing on, do you? Or you do and are lying to us.

This would be funny if it weren’t so tragic:

The results could be catastrophic — not merely for the activists who are working to make Russia a free country, but for the moral authority of those in the West who preach liberty but practice something quite different.

Sweetheart, that veiled threat would only work if we had not already squandered our moral authority. Maybe since you hear that in the Russian media, you assume it is propaganda, but I can assure you there is nothing you and Kasparov can do to our moral authority that hasn’t already been done better by Iraq, black CIA prisons, Guantanamo, etc.

True, when some Western leaders come to Moscow they make a point of meeting human rights activists or the moderate opposition. “They ask us how they can help us. We explain that they should raise the question of human rights and democracy when talking to Russian leaders,” says Arseny Roginski of the human rights group Memorial. “But after that, usually nothing happens.”

Y’all should consider yourself lucky. When America meddles in the domestic politics of other countries, horrible, horrible things tend to happen. And if it is any consolation, liberals in America experience the same thing when our leaders talk to us about civil liberties an democracy. “Promises, promises, you knew you’d never keep…” Obama can’t even deliver for his own people; what makes you think he can deliver for you?

Just when I am about to ask the perennial question, what exactly do Lilia and her comrades mean when they use words like “democracy” or “liberal,”

One influential European leader, Robert Cooper, the E.U. director-general for external and politico-military affairs, does not shy from discussing democracy with the Russian political elite. In an interview with the pro-Kremlin Russian Institute he concluded, “Sometimes I think that the word ‘democracy’ becomes problematic. I would prefer to talk about responsible, open government that defends the rights of nations … but has enough legitimacy to use tough administrative measures when there is a need for them.” Such an understanding of democracy is exactly what the current Russian government is looking for.

She fails to explain what precisely is wrong with this understanding of democracy, other than the E.U. and the Kremlin like it, and she’s clearly not happy with them. Which strikes me as sophomoric logic. “Responsible, open government,” sounds like a reasonable aim to me, and legitimacy and authority are surely necessities for any effective government. If this is really what the current Russian government is looking for (I think she’s being too generous), they should be commended.

The following paragraph makes no sense, either in the context of the article or in itself. It’s like when you get into an argument with your lover and have a valid point but then your emotions take over and you end up sounding like a crazy person. Which makes me secretly love it.

Russia’s reform-minded forces have long since stopped calling on the West to help advance democracy in Russia. They understand that transforming Russia is a job for Russian society itself. But reform-minded Russians expect the West at least to avoid holding back change by supporting the authoritarian forces that would suppress it. Prominent Russian human rights activists and liberals like Sergei Kovalev, Garry Kasparov, and Grigory Yavlinsky, long considered pro-Western voices, have recently become critics of the West’s increasingly accommodating policies toward Russia. One might say that these voices are just a small minority of Russian society. But if the West loses this pro-Western minority, it will lose Russia altogether.

We don’t expect you to help. Why aren’t you helping?! This is a job for Russia. The West needs to do its part! We are a minority. We are Russia altogether! Why isn’t anyone listening to me?! Why are you cuffing me to the bed?!

She concludes with the following:

This begs the question: How can Western civilization resolve its own internal problems with democracy if it abandons its mission of promoting liberty?

Let’s ignore that this is really the least of the questions her article begs.
Let’s ignore the fascinating arrogance this question implies, that the fate of Western civilization rests on Lilia’s political interests.
Let’s ignore the horrible horrible things that happen when Western leaders trot the globe promoting liberty.
Let’s not be hysterical. Let’s be rational.

Isn’t she putting the horse before the cart? Don’t America and Europe need to get their own houses in order before they are able to do her housecleaning for her? Didn’t Voltaire, high priest of civil liberties have something to say about that? Something about a garden?

Sloth. That’s the other thing they use to pave roads to Hell. I don’t know Lilia, but she strikes as a busy, hard-working woman. Yet I suppose my biggest grief with her and Russian liberals is their aversion to doing the grunt work that most functioning democracies require. I say this as someone who, in a non-functioning democracy, along with thousands of everyday citizens, actually goes out and organizes support, raises money, knocks on doors, holds public forums, annoys total strangers by surveying their needs, interests, issues and annoys them again by making damn well sure they vote, and vote for my candidate, who loses. Over and over and over, American Democrats and liberals and champions of human rights and social justice LOSE. And when I lose, I do not go running to the leaders and opinion-makers asking, “What have you done for me lately?” I ask, “What more could I have done? How have we failed to communicate our message? Why are our citizens so fucking stupid?” Because in a democracy, you can’t blame everyone else when you lose. Even when the votes are rigged and stolen. And what if your magical pony scenario wherein the West stops engaging Russia and poof! Russian liberals are suddenly a force to be reckoned with, even perhaps in power, were to materialize? How is that a democratic process? And what organization and popular support will you have in place to maintain your power? I ask because the people you are up against have a very fucking good organization and some genuine popular support. It seems to me that instead of making empty threats to so-called Western leaders and writing articles in English-language newspapers, you would have a far better chance of success if you focused on building an organization and support at home. So, Lilia, darling, you can hardly fault those who read your articles for wondering if Russia really is ready for democracy. Or rather, if you are.

III. Someone Else’s Response.

Much classier than mine.

Gordon M. Hahn has written an artcle, “Bashing Russia, Kowtowing to Beijing, and Avoiding Responsibility – One Russian Liberal’s Formula for Failure. Response to Lilia Shevtsova’s “The Kremlin Kowtow – Why have Western leaders and intellectuals gone soft on Russia’s autocracy?” www.foreignpolicy.com, January 5, 2010.” on the website, Russia: Other Points of View.

Timothy Post, living up to his name, posted this on facebook. He thinks it’s one of the best articles he’ll read all year. There are parts of it I am not completely on board with (investment in Russia – gives me the willies) but this is a far more mature response to Lilia’s article than mine, and focusses on why it is imperative that the United States and Russia maintain a working relationship. Which is a topic near and dear to my heart. I recommend you go read the whole thing (it’s not so long), but have chosen some of my favorite excerpts to repost here. They generally do not require commentary. A sign of a good writer, I think.

The U.S. simply cannot uphold Russian liberals today as it once did Soviet dissidents, and we should not conceptualize Russian state-society relations as a modified version of Soviet state-society relations. Russia has come along way from the Soviet totalitarian model. The Soviet system’s omnipresent repression and cruelty created state-society relations that Anna Akhmatova once described accurately in the early 1950s as two Russias confronting each other: one, the imprisoned – the other, their wardens. Thus, Western leaders had reason to suspect during the Cold war that hatred of the communist regime inside the USSR was such that, there was a thirst for democracy and freedom – and sooner or later, it would have to be quenched. If and when the Soviet system opened up, movement to democracy and the market could be expected

The situation today is much different. Although the Russian state remains today overbearing and on occasion repressive, there is a modicum of democracy and markets providing considerable room for the opposition to live, speak, and organize openly. The opposition is simply not given the opportunity to win elections. State administrative electoral manipulation of various sorts and state media domination are largely at fault, but so too are the liberals’ unpopularity with Russia’s electorate, their poor governing record in the 1990s, and their internal divisions and petty squabbling for which Russians rejected them as a viable option for leadership. The absence of an effective or responsible democratic opposition renders any aggressive Western backing of democracy forces against the Kremlin a losing proposition.

And a dangerous one too, IMO.

Also, because of NATO expansion and other U.S. policy mistakes (failure to provide timely economic assistance for Russia’s great depression in the early 1990s, preservation of the Jackson-Vanik amendment, unilateral withdrawal from the ABM treaty and attempting to deploy ABM systems in Poland and the Czech Republic, etc.), we no longer have the Russians’ trust – either at the level of the elite or among the general public.

And we’re losing Lilia’s! (Sorry – I could not resist.)

Dr. Shevtsova charges that putting arms control negotiations at the top of the relationship’s agenda now is misplaced and that Moscow and Washington are using “a Cold-War era mechanism to try to imitate cooperation.” The fact is if we used her proposed “values-based” approach, arms control would be the only cooperation possible.

Valuable cooperation would be lost in a host of other areas – Afghanistan and the overall war against jihadism, space, and anti-piracy – just to name a few.

But please let’s not underestimate the necessity for arms control.

To support her call for Russia’s isolation, Shevtsova notes that Sergei Kovalev, Garry Kasparov, and Grigory Yavlinsky have long supported such an approach. However, last month’s congress of Yavlinskii’s Yabloko party decided to advance cooperation with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev. Kovalev was a State Duma deputy until 2003 and has attended meetings with President Medvedev, so he is not averse to cooperating in limited fashion with the regime that Shevtsova recommends the West should shun. The only true recalcitrant in her group of admirable dissidents, Gary Kasparov, has allied with the neo-fascist pornographer, National Bolshevik Party leader Eduard Limonov.

Hey, that would be “neo-fascist pornographer, National Bolshevik Party leader, brilliant writer, and probably the only sincere opposition in the lot who isn’t hiding some agenda designed to make him wealthy or a hit with the DC crowd, Eduard Limonov.” Pretty sure that is his official title.

There are projects that would be worthy for the U.S.-Russia Civil Society Working Group to cooperate on. One is former U.S. Army Colonel Charles Heberle’s democracy education program, which the Russian Ministry of Education is preparing to institute in all of Russia’s schools and has been functioning for years in schools in Petrozavodsk, Karelia. Dr Shevtsova is especially off base when she asserts there are few in the U.S. who believe Russians are ready for democracy.

Fascinating – I had no idea. Granted, I don’t trust a “democracy education program” in the hands of McFaul, or the Ministry of Education in the hands of Surkov. But together, that could be one crazy lovechild, if those two ever decide to get into bed with each other. Also, isn’t Gorby working on something similar?

Today’s Kremlin and today’s Russia are not yesterday’s Kremlin and the USSR, and Russia’s liberals should use the system to change the system. Their dependence on the West discredits them internally, could make them subservient to forces that are not as devoted to Russia’s development as they, and foist on them ideas that may not be suitable for, or politically marketable in Russia in the near future.

If anyone got the impression from my take-down of Lilia that it is the Russian liberals whom I oppose, a clarification is in order. It’s the “forces that are not as devoted to Russia’s development as they, and foist on them ideas that may not be suitable for, or politically marketable in Russia in the near future,” whom I oppose.

The best way for the West to assist them is to support Russia’s efforts when possible, engage the Kremlin in democratization projects, and improve the relationship so that the distrust built up through much of the post-Cold War period begins to evaporate. Remember that when U.S. President Ronald Reagan seriously engaged Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in 1987-88, the latter’s position was strengthened such that he could push his perestroika reforms in earnest.

While many understandably have a far different take on those salad days of Russian democracy (and the chaos that followed) than anyone inclined to idolize Reagan, this is a clear refutation of Lilia’s fuzzy logic.

Timothy recommends we read Hahn’s article and send it to our representatives. Why not? Hey, I sent a Stephen Cohen piece to mine, soon after Obama came out and pretended to scrap the missile shield fiasco! Sometimes this whole democracy thing actually pretends to work…

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