Boris Nemtsov, a leader of Russia's democratic opposition, spoke Monday at a conference held by the Foreign Policy Initiative. "Russians do not know what Obama thinks about human rights and democracy," the former deputy prime minister and Solidarnost cofounder said. Nemtsov elaborated when Eli Lake of the Washington Times talked to him later:
"I have no illusion about help from America. I don't think an American president or the American Congress will establish democracy in my country," he said, adding that this was the job of Russians and Russians alone.
"But I think the position of the U.S. establishment is important for the atmosphere around the Kremlin," he said.
Mr. Nemtsov was particularly critical of a decision by Mr. [Michael] McFaul[, senior director of Russian and Eurasian affairs on the Obama Administration's National Security Council,] to launch a civil-society dialogue with Vladislav Surkov, a Putin loyalist who founded Russian nationalist youth organizations that Mr. Nemtsov likened to Nazi youth groups in Germany under Adolf Hitler.
Mr. Nemtsov said it was perverse that Mr. Surkov, whose youth groups intimidated independent journalists in Russia, would be representing Russia in a forum aimed at expanding civil society.
Instead, Mr. Nemtsov recommended the United States government bar Mr. Surkov from traveling to the United States.
I mentioned an FPI proposal to shun Vladislav Surkov in this space a few months ago; needless to say, the Obama administration has not embraced this policy. Turning down the volume on criticism of Putinist authoritarianism is of a piece with the administration's "reset" policy with Russia.
The centerpiece of the reset policy is the New START arms control agreement, which seems to be doomed given Republican opposition. This is probably a bad thing -- I'm somewhat ambivalent on this point -- but be wary of assertions that the GOP is simply "playing politics" with the treaty (there are legitimate problems with it; reasonable people can disagree on how serious they are), and be very wary of attempts to blame the Senate when friction with Russia inevitably resurfaces. As Nemtsov said at the FPI conference, an arms control treaty will not change the fact that "Putin has absolutely different values" than those found in Western liberal democracies.
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