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Remarks by the Hon. L. Hastings at the World Russian Forum

Thank you, Ed. It is indeed a pleasure to speak today before the World Russian Forum and these many distinguished guests, especially in this most notable year – the 200th anniversary of diplomatic ties between our two great nations.

As Chairman of the Helsinki Commission and as a past President of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, I have had the pleasure of visiting Russia on numerous occasions and meeting with fellow parliamentarians from the Duma – some of whom, I understand, are with us today.

As other speakers have noted, we meet at a time when relations between our two countries are, shall we say, strained. The “Era of Good Feeling” between the United States and Russia following the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 has been replaced, in some respects, by a chilliness marked by mutual suspicion.

I do not believe we are in or are headed for a cold war, as some commentators have suggested. But it does seem to me that we are living through a cold peace.

How did things come to this? If you read the speeches of President Putin or Foreign Minister Lavrov, you will conclude that relations have soured because America is piqued at Russia’s resurgence. After a decade of economic upheaval and relative strategic irrelevance, Russia is back, and Washington, accustomed to ruling the world unilaterally, doesn’t care for it one bit.

Perhaps there is some truth to this. There was in Washington an air of post-Cold War triumphalism following the Soviet collapse that many Russians found offensive. Though we loudly spoke of a “strategic partnership,” many policy-makers and commentators in Washington quietly believed Russia was too weakened and corrupt to play a significant role in world affairs.

Well, times change, as they always do. Secretary Rice is in Moscow today, presumably trying to reassure Russian officials about plans to place anti-missile defenses in Poland and the Czech Republic. I hope she will be successful because I see missile defense as an inclusive policy priority. When President Reagan first thought of strategic defense, it was his hope that the United States and the USSR could work together on a program that benefited them both. That is all the more the case today, as access to weapons of mass destruction and delivery systems spread. I think cooperation on strategic defense should unite our countries, not divide them.

Events of the last decade or so have undoubtedly left their mark on the present reality. But there are other reasons why Washington is concerned about developments in Russia.

Ever since the tragic shelling of the Russian White House in the fall of 1993 and particularly over the last 7 years, the Kremlin has moved decisively to recentralize the power that had devolved from the center in 1991 and, as we see it from Washington, sought to limit civil liberties and freedom of expression. The goal seems to have been to effect exclusive control of policymaking and the political agenda, while eliminating any realistic choice from the political arena, thus removing the public from politics.

Russian officials claim it was necessary to establish stability in Russia, and resurrect a nation battered by inflation, corruption, negative demographics, and greedy oligarchs.

But I would ask this question: if one person’s departure could lead to nightmare scenarios – as we hear so frequently from Moscow – what kind of stability has been achieved by this curtailment of freedom of the media, diversity of opinion, and political pluralism?

Let me turn now to foreign policy. As you all know, the comprehensive concept of security underlying the Helsinki process encompasses democracy, human rights, and the rule of law – key components of domestic policy – as well as principles governing relations with states, sovereign equality, and respect for territorial integrity. And in this regard, some see Russian behavior that is increasingly at variance with these principles.

The United States is also a big and powerful country and we are often accused of throwing our weight around. Around a century ago, President Diaz of Mexico, said “Poor Mexico – so far from God, so close to the United States.” I don’t know where Russia’s neighbors are located in spiritual terms, but I am sure that some often lament their proximity to that country.

Look, for example, at the ongoing confrontation between giant Russia and tiny Georgia. The tenor of the relationship is simple: if Moscow doesn’t like what Georgia is doing, the gas gets turned off or trade embargoes are imposed. This may seem like sensible policy in the Kremlin, but to others it looks like bullying.

As someone who has traveled to all of the former Soviet states and talked with their leaders, I am struck by the sense of lost opportunity. Russia could have excellent relations with its neighbors, if it only wanted to.

In sum, ladies and gentlemen, some fear we are seeing the emergence of a Russia repressive at home and aggressive abroad.

As Chairman of the Helsinki Commission, I am deeply and personally committed to the development and strengthening of economic and cultural ties – in the spirit of the Helsinki Final Act – between our two nations. I know that all of us here are. So I am concerned by the state of affairs, but not unduly so. This is not a cold war. Our missiles are not pointed at each other. Our troops are not lined up against each other.

But clearly, things could be much better. So where do we go from here? It’s time to recognize that the 1990s are over, not just chronologically but geostrategically as well. We will have to get used to renewed competition between Russia and the United States. And that is not such a bad thing, if the competition inspires us both to greater achievement and does not blind us to areas where cooperation is not just mutually beneficial but essential.

Obviously, Russia has recovered much of its strength. As long as oil and gas prices remain high, Russia will not want for money. It would be my hope that it uses those rubles to build the country’s infrastructure and to raise the standard of living for all of Russia’s citizens – not just its wealthiest stratum. And I hope that as Russia feels ever more confident, its leaders will see that the development of strong institutions outside the presidency is the only solid guarantee of long-term stability and that genuine choice for voters is a positive good, not a threat.

In the international arena, I very much hope that Russia, in defending and pursuing its interests, will not choose to act simply out of spite towards the United States. Occasionally, I must tell you, that is how it seems to some of us. But in an era of ever-broadening access to terrible weapons, this would be not only self-defeating but truly dangerous. I specifically have in mind Iran, which gives every indication of seeking to develop nuclear weapons. It is somewhat reassuring that Moscow seems to have understood what is at stake and to have lost patience with Teheran. But it is quite worrying for me, especially as a member of the House Intelligence Committee, that it took Moscow so long to do so.

Much of the time, we seem to be talking past each other. But in general, I am a proponent of more talk, not less. Even disagreements can be illuminating. Unfortunately, in the last several years, contact between the U.S. Congress and the Russian Duma has declined. I believe we must reinvigorate those contacts through more frequent and structured interaction and, for our part, I intend to suggest to Speaker Pelosi that we develop a program to do so.

When all is said and done, it is unrealistic to expect that two great powers should see the world through the same eyes and act in lockstep. But while Russia and the United States may not have to love each other, they do need each other. For our own sakes and the sake of all humanity, they need to cooperate in the areas of counter-terrorism, non-proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, anti-trafficking, space exploration, and medical research, to name just a few.

And maybe we will yet find a way to work together on climate change, an issue that unites not just Russia and the United States but the entire human race. Preferably, we will do so while there’s still time.

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