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REMARKS ON RUSSIA AND CENTRAL ASIA: THE GROWING POLICY CHALLENGES FOR THE INTERNATIONAL COMMUNITY AT JOHNS HOPKINS SCHOOL OF ADVANCED INTERNATIONAL STUDIES



CHAIRMAN ALCEE L. HASTINGS

Monday, March 12, 2007


Distinguished Speakers and Guests, Ladies and Gentlemen,

I would like to thank Freedom House for inviting me to speak at this important event. Freedom House has well earned its reputation as one of the foremost democracy-promoting organizations in the world. Moreover, Nations in Transit – whose 2007 edition this conference is launching – has become an indispensable source of information, measuring the advance of democratization around the globe. Thanks also to SAIS for co-hosting and my congratulations to you on the success of your Russia and Eurasian Studies Program.

As Paula said, I Chair the Helsinki Commission, which Congress created in 1976 to monitor and promote implementation of the Helsinki Final Act in all the participating States. Moreover, I have recently completed two years as president of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly – the only American to ever hold that post. In that capacity, I visited 31 OSCE states, including Russia and all the Central Asian countries. In my travels and in Washington, I have met with presidents and foreign ministers, with parliamentarians, opposition leaders and dissenters, and with journalists and human rights activists.

In these remarks, I would like to give you my assessment of where I see democratic governance and human rights trending in the region, more than 15 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

But first, I want to state that we need to take back the moral high-ground that we once stood on. This starts by holding ourselves accountable when human rights issues arise here at home. Not that we have anything to be afraid of. But we must take away the credibility of those who would accuse us of double standards. As Chairman of the Helsinki Commission, this will be one of my priorities.

Let me now talk about Russia. You are all surely familiar with President Putin’s speech in Munich last month, and how pundits have characterized U.S.-Russian relations these days. It’s a bad sign when our Secretary of Defense has to note that “one Cold War was enough.” Actually, one Cold War was more than enough.

Now, I understand that Russians remember the 1990s very differently than we do. Despite what many viewed from abroad as a “springtime” of freedom for Russia and the territory of the former Soviet Union, many citizens of Russia remember the nineties as a period of tremendous economic dislocation, rampant crime, chaos at home, and humiliation abroad. The relative order and, at least, superficial international respect that President Vladimir Putin brought to Russia has been welcomed by a majority of the Russian population and seems to be strongly supported by the younger generation. From our point of view, this runs somewhat counter to the assumption that the post-communist generation would yearn for still greater freedom and be less pugnacious. It is necessary that we find a way to come to grips with these divergent views of the recent past as we look to the future.

So it’s understandable that today, Russians proudly proclaim that “Russia is back.” This is certainly true, and in no small measure due to high energy prices. Nor is it surprising that a great country with vast human and material resources should rebound from even the disruptions of the last 20 years. What troubles me and many others is what kind of Russia has returned to a leading role on the world stage.

Russian officials maintain that their democracy is developing in its own way and in accordance with its own traditions. They accuse the United States of unilateralism in foreign affairs and of seeking to impose the American form of democratic governance on Russia and the rest of the world and hypocritically meddling in the affairs of others.

To be sure, our attempts to spread the undeniable benefits of the American experience have not always been distinguished by cultural sensitivity. But I get nervous when I hear the phrase “according to our own traditions and national mentality.” No rational person expects Ivan Ivanov to be a carbon copy of John Johnson. However, there are certain basic shared assumptions about what democratic governance entails: freedom of religion; freedom of speech; freedom of assembly; rule of law; a reasonable distribution of power between the branches of government; an independent judiciary; etc. I would also note that reference to one’s “traditions” as a method of denying rights to others is not solely a Russian phenomenon.

There’s little doubt that under President Putin – who is undeniably popular – some people have begun to live better materially. Many Russians are proud of their president, of his sober, disciplined approach to government and his determination to restore Russia’s greatness. But in Russia – and Central Asia – we have witnessed the emergence of super-presidencies, which have overwhelmed the legislative and the judicial branches.

For instance, in successfully recentralizing power in the Kremlin, President Putin has turned the Duma into a virtual rubber stamp. True, the Duma was quite complicit in this. And I am aware that American history has also produced “honeymoons” between popular chief executives and a congressional majority representing the same political party. We’ve just finished a six year version right here in Washington. But I hope my colleagues in the Russian Duma would agree that a vital element of representative government is a legislature that acts as a check on executive power.

As for judicial independence – a critical component of checks and balances – when was the last time a court in Russia ruled contrary to government wishes in a politically sensitive case in which the Kremlin or the security forces – some would say they are synonymous – have an interest?

Especially alarming is the contraction of freedom of the media. The Kremlin now controls all major TV stations, which parrot the official perspective. As for newspapers, though less popular as a source of information, journalism has become a very dangerous profession. In fact, according to the International News Safety Institute, Russia is the second most dangerous country for journalists in the world – the first is Iraq. Just last week, yet another investigative journalist died under suspicious circumstances. There is a long list of such crimes, which have largely gone unsolved. Obviously, the Fourth Estate is being told to shut its mouth, if it wants to keep its head.

Furthermore, I am troubled by the government’s attempts to rein in civil society, at least those elements that the Kremlin views as threatening. Many of you may have read about the judge who recently fined members of a local human rights group for meeting in a school with foreign visitors without notifying the authorities – a mentality that smacks frighteningly of the Soviet era.

Russian officials often get irritated when they hear the terms “managed democracy” or “sham democracy.” But I see in Russia a system that attempts to carefully control politics, in which the public has been removed from the political process while the state’s well-connected individuals have taken charge of the country’s most profitable giant companies. And it is hard for me to see how or when this system will open up again.

One way the system could open up is through legitimate presidential elections in 2008, when President Putin is expected to retire. But to judge by the current difficulties reported by “outsiders” testing the waters in Russia, there is no reason to expect that opposition candidates can count on an equal playing field.

The rise of “illiberal democracy” at home is also reflected in Russia’s behavior abroad. For example, Moscow’s unrelenting pressure on Georgia and Moldova has tarnished Russia’s reputation as a conscientious upholder of international law. Especially worrying for Europe are possible interruptions in oil and gas supplies, as has happened during Russia’s disputes with its neighbors. Not surprisingly, Washington and other capitals – even Minsk – are wondering whether Russia can be a reliable supplier of the energy on which our economies depend.

Of course, Russia should be able to enjoy the benefits of its energy resources, which account for fully one-quarter of its GDP. But what will benefit Russia, as well as transit and consumer countries, would be more transparency and predictability in energy supply. Think of Russia moving toward a Canadian or Norwegian model instead of an OPEC model.

This would entail the promotion of free-market policies in the energy sector. It would mean the protection of property rights, which ensure fair competition, backed up by a commitment to the rule of law that give these rights some meaning. Such transparency and predictability will help ensure that Russia can rationally exploit its resources and that consuming countries can sleep easy – and warm – at night. And Russia’s leaders must understand that other states have become hypersensitive to the possibility that the Kremlin will exploit its control of hydrocarbons for political gain and draw the appropriate conclusions. Yet I often wonder if they do. Sometimes it seems that oil has simply gone to people’s heads in Moscow.

As a senior member of the Intelligence Committee, I am well aware of the gravity of the terrorist threat facing this country as well as Russia. I understand the need for us to work together to confront this danger to the whole world. But the legitimate struggle against terrorism cannot be an excuse for gross violations of international humanitarian law and norms – Chechnya comes to mind in this context.

Before moving on to Central Asia, I would just emphasize my sincere belief that we best advance our interests with Russia in an atmosphere of mutual respect and not of mutual recrimination. Knee-jerk Russia bashing may be emotionally satisfying for some and may help bolster budgets for others, but it does little to promote our goals and, in fact, closes many doors for dialogue and understanding. On the other hand, being best friends should not be the measure of successful bilateral relations. We need to focus our efforts more on bolstering Russia’s nascent democratic institutions rather than on the rapidly changing faces of the Russian elite.

I would also add that I support granting Permanent Normal Trade Relations to Russia. Russia has complied with our law. We spend millions of dollars promoting rule of law abroad, but we seem unable or too preoccupied to comply with our own legislation and retire this Cold War relic.

Let me now turn to Central Asia. Over the last 15 years, we have seen the rise of the familiar “super-president,” the controlled parliament, the supine judiciary and the media under pressure, while the families and cronies of rulers prosper. In Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, no political opposition has been permitted. Turkmenistan – which is still a one-party state today – has been one of the most repressive countries in the world, virtually a post-Soviet North Korea, with a similar cult of personality.

In Kazakhstan and Tajikistan, opposition is tolerated but tightly controlled; there is very little opposition representation in their parliaments. Only Kyrgyzstan has bucked the Central Asian trend to some degree. Former President Akaev did not control the political arena as his counterparts did and civil society was much stronger than elsewhere in the region. So it was not surprising that if an opposition-led protest movement in the region had any chance of toppling a government, it would be in Kyrgyzstan.

All this was true even before the 2003 Rose Revolution in Georgia. But that historic event, followed by Ukraine’s Orange Revolution and the March 2005 Tulip Revolution in Kyrgyzstan, upset the rulers of most former Soviet states. Central Asian leaders, especially Uzbekistan’s President Karimov, have moved to preempt similar uprisings in their countries by undercutting opposition activists, NGOs – including foreign ones, like Freedom House and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty – and human rights groups.

In this campaign they have received backing from Moscow, which has warned of sinister U.S. plots of regime change. Indeed, Moscow unfortunately seems to see democratization as a key weapon in a zero-sum competition for influence with the United States. Russia viewed the revolutions in Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan not only as unwelcome achievements of democracy but as a new, historic Western “incursion” into its own sphere of influence. Its apparent strategy is to build alliances with repressive rulers, while dismissing Western disapproval of their authoritarianism as geo-politically motivated. In fact, an anti-revolutionary alliance of states has emerged, embracing most post-Soviet republics and China as well.

And these efforts have borne fruit – since Kyrgyzstan, the wave has receded, at least for now.

This situation puts U.S. policymakers in a tough spot. Even before September 11, Washington had struggled to find ways to move Central Asian rulers towards more political openness. But they had already concluded that even if relations with the Americans were not very close, the U.S. interest in security, energy and providing a strategic alternative to Russia meant that Washington might criticize flawed elections or human rights problems but would not level serious sanctions or cut off ties.

After September 11, the countries of Central Asia saw the opportunity for closer relations with the United States, which was happy to accommodate them in the name of fighting terrorism. An agreement on strategic cooperation was struck with Uzbekistan. We opened military bases there and in Kyrgyzstan. The Tajiks and even Turkmenistan cooperated in overflights and assistance corridors to Afghanistan.

Today, economic concerns have come to equal security priorities: with the price of a barrel of oil down to about $60 from a high in the mid-70s and Kazakhstan’s oil and Turkmenistan’s gas beckoning, how do we influence Central Asia’s leaders to liberalize their political systems? It doesn’t look like they want to and they seem to think they don’t have to.

There are no easy answers to this question. Obviously, we cannot compel them to democratize or observe their human rights commitments. We have 150,000 troops in Iraq but we can’t ensure basic order, much less build a democratic state there at this time. Even in the 1990s, when Russia was much weaker and poorer than it is today, our leverage was limited. Today, I have the sense that our criticism has the opposite effect on Russian officials.

The countries of Central Asia don’t have issues of superpower rivalry with the United States, and they do want to have good relations with us, which facilitates dialogue with them about democratization and human rights. Still, those in power want to remain there – it is their highest priority and they will resist systemic reforms that could threaten their position.

You might infer from this overview that I am a pessimist. Not at all. No black man who grew up during the halcyon days of the segregated south and became a judge and then a Congressman while a black woman from the segregated south is Secretary of State can be a pessimist. But I have become more realistic and pragmatic. Let me share with you some conclusions I have drawn.

First, democratic transformations take much longer than we would like. The experience of the former Soviet Union proves that the collapse of communism is necessary but not sufficient. We should understand we are in this for the long haul.

Second, repressive leaders often maintain that their people are not ready for democracy. I think, however, that publics are much more ready than governments. People in Russia and Central Asia, who have experienced or witnessed enough disruption for several lifetimes, understandably value stability and predictability. But that does not mean they do not want the basic gifts of democracy and human rights. Everyone wants a say in his or her own government and to be treated with respect. When circumstances permit, those desires, I believe, will come to the fore.

Third, we in the West saw the so-called color revolutions as a glorious exercise in popular sovereignty, as people peacefully went to the streets to oust corrupt, unresponsive regimes. But we sometimes forget that revolutions are evidence of failed politics. They reflect a crisis in the relations between state and society when people have no satisfactory methods of influencing policy or seeking redress of grievances, such as recourse to the courts for the impartial administration of justice. So while I welcome the Rose, Orange, and Tulip revolutions, I regret their necessity. Slow, steady progress towards democratic governance would be better for all concerned. It is this goal we should work for, through the building of institutions that promote the rule of law and civil society.

Fourth, in the absence of established institutions, the ruler’s character remains critical in such highly personalized political systems. It was clear, for example, that while President Niyazov lived, there was no chance of reform in Turkmenistan. The notion may not be popular among some scholars today, but his long reign clearly demonstrates the power of individuals to shape history, certainly for ill and I hope, for good.

Fifth, succession can spark unexpected events and accelerate or slow down institution-building. I suspect the death of President Niyazov in December has got the other Central Asian leaders thinking. They are not young men and they have some serious inheritance issues to consider. Nowhere has there been established any tested method for peacefully transferring power at the top. In Kyrgyzstan, a head of state has been removed, but presidential succession has come to be associated with street politics as much as constitutional requirements. In the other countries…well, we will have to see. But barring dramatic headlines, the first important such decision will come in Uzbekistan. President Karimov’s term runs out this year. He will have to decide whether to step down or resort to some ploy to remain in office. I believe that if he chooses the latter course, he will damage his reputation still further and make instability more likely.

Whatever happens, however, I strongly believe that all of Central Asia will be watching how President Putin handles his own succession problem. If he steps down, some may be more inclined to follow his example.

Sixth, we must not turn our backs on the region and its people. I know Uzbekistan is a repressive state and I share the widespread revulsion at the slaughter in Andijon, but does it help us not to be engaged with President Karimov? Have we gained anything by these frozen relations – quite apart from the loss of our base at K-2, has democracy advanced in Uzbekistan while we criticize him from afar?

At the same time, Tashkent must understand we cannot turn a blind eye to atrocities. I have supported the European Union’s serious effort to restore ties with Uzbekistan based on human rights progress, but I would welcome a good faith gesture from Tashkent. For example, Umida Niyazova, a human rights activist who used to work for Freedom House and Human Rights Watch, is in jail. I call on President Karimov to release her immediately.

As for Turkmenistan, President Niyazov’s death offers no guarantees of liberalization. But at least there is reason now to hope for a more rational leadership that will focus on the public good, not the president’s ego.

I see mixed messages coming out of Ashgabat. On the one hand, the new president has pledged to broaden internet access and has restored the tenth grade and physical education to the school curriculum. That doesn’t sound like much but when you start from such a low base, it can seem like a huge improvement. I expect that gradually, the more bizarre aspects of President Niyazov’s misrule will disappear. But I hope to see much more – the release of people jailed on political grounds and the beginnings of political pluralism. I expect to travel to Ashgabat to discuss with the new Turkmen leaders the prospects for systemic democratization. We need to engage with them in a process of consultation and give and take.

Let me conclude by mentioning a few things we should not do, starting with not shooting ourselves in the foot. I have in mind the Voice of America. As many of you probably know, the American Administration has called for major cuts in VOA broadcasting, including closing down the Uzbek and Georgian Services and ending radio programs while retaining television transmission in Russian and Ukrainian. This, ladies and gentlemen, seems to me to be the height of folly. As I have argued here, the democratic transition in the former Soviet Union is far from secure. VOA broadcasts are one of the most effective, biggest-bang-for-the-buck tools in our arsenal to propagate democratic ideals.

And in this connection, I want to associate myself with remarks made on Thursday by my good friend Tom Lantos, Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, in a hearing on U.S. assistance. Like him, I simply cannot comprehend why we should now cut our funding for democracy promotion – especially to the tune of 40 percent. He called for more aid to NGOs that try, under ever worsening conditions, to promote freedom in Russia. I am in full solidarity with him and together with likeminded Members of Congress, we hope to roll back the VOA cuts and increase assistance for democracy promotion.

The same applies to funding for the OSCE, which the budgeters also want to slash. Please be assured that I will fight this.

Paula, I’ve gone on for quite some time. I hope I haven’t overstayed my welcome. Thank you once again for inviting me. Let me end here and I look forward to hearing from the other speakers.





   
 

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