How should the United States and European countries respond?
The developments in Russia are Russia’s own business. It is up to the Russian people to elect those who govern them in their name.
Russia is better equipped for making the right choices than ever before in its history. Many people are stepping out of their private domains into the public square. Information and views are shared instantaneously and independently across the country’s many time zones. A sense of self-preservation is spreading across all quarters, which works for change but bars chaos. Russians are also proud: many felt insulted by Putin’s claim that the rallies in Moscow had been organized by Hillary Clinton and her U.S. State Department.
As long as the newly enlivened political process in Moscow remains peaceful and orderly, there is no need to “respond” to it and appear to be meddling. Secretary Clinton’s remarks, which she made in Vilnius right after the Duma elections, were widely interpreted in Russia as a statement primarily designed for “the other party” in Washington, lest congressional Republicans accuse the Obama administration of cuddling Kremlin authoritarians in the name of the reset. Similar statements in the future could be devalued and turned around in the same way—by pointing to the context of America’s own election campaign. The European leaders, gripped by their seminal crisis, have remained, by and large, intently interested in Russian developments but publicly silent.
Rather than telling the Russian authorities how they must manage their country, Western leaders need first to try to understand what is happening there. 2012 is going to be very different from Russia’s 1991 and 1993, Serbia’s 2000, or Ukraine’s 2004. This is not a case of an ancien régime being overthrown by a broad democratic movement that draws its inspiration from the United States and Europe. Today, Russia, in terms of its national capacity and international importance, can be likened neither to Serbia nor Ukraine.
Thus, Western leaderships need to use whatever influence they have to encourage the continued peaceful and orderly nature of the Russian political process. They need to offer as many international observers as possible to ensure that the Russian presidential election is properly monitored. And they need to do nothing that could be construed as interference in Russia’s domestic affairs.
The key word in U.S. and European approaches to Russia in the run-up to the March elections is responsibility. This does not equate to keeping mum out of caution, but it certainly does not lay a premium on Sunday preaching. Beyond March 4, there is another day.