Thursday, November 17, 2005

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Not a good sign for Russia

One of the standard lines of criticism about Council on Foreign Relations task forces/reports/working groups is that the desire to product nonpartisan output can water down CFR foreign policy analysis and recommendations. There might, just might, be a grain of truth to that charge every now and then.

So it's pretty damn telling that Jack Kemp and John Edwards, the co-chairs of the Council on Foreign Relations Independent Task Force on U.S. Policy Toward Russia, sent a letter to President Bush that was pretty damn explicit in terms of concern about Russia's new law regulating NGOs. Here's how it opens:

Dear Mr. President:

Last spring the Council on Foreign Relations asked the two of us to serve as co-chairs of an independent task force on U.S. policy toward Russia. The group has met several times over the past six months and is preparing a report to be issued early next year. As sometimes happens in the course of such a broad review, an individual issue emerges that is so timely -- and about which task force members feel so strongly -- that the co-chairs decide to make early contact with policymakers to express their views. We are writing you now on just such a question -- a disturbing new challenge to the ability of Russian non-governmental organizations to cooperate with, and draw support from counterparts in the United States and elsewhere. We believe this issue urgently needs discussion when you meet with President Putin this week.

As you may know, members of President Putin's party and other factions of the State Duma introduced legislation last week that would, among other things, keep foreign NGO's from maintaining "representative offices" or branches in Russia and deny foreign funds to Russian organizations that engage in (undefined) "political" activities. Virtually the entire non-profit sector -- from human-rights monitors to policy think-tanks, even public-health alliances -- is likely to be affected.

The impact of this measure, if it became law, should be obvious: it would roll back pluralism in Russia and curtail contact between our societies. It would mark a complete breach of the commitment to strengthen such contact that President Putin made when you and he met in Bratislava on February 24, 2005. And it raises an almost unthinkable prospect -- that the president of Russia might serve as chairman of the G-8 at the same time that laws come into force in his country to choke off contacts with global society.


posted by Dan on 11.17.05 at 11:48 PM


Two things, both unrelated to the substance of the post:

1. Does the letter actually say "...Putin's party and other fractions of the State Duma..."?

2. I like the new format, in particular the use of non-serif fonts; they are excellent for Web viewing, a fact that The Economist has realized, but the New York Times hasn't. I also like the new money at the top; I was getting a bit sick of H.R.M. Elizabeth II.

I do not, however, like the fact that certain punctuation, such as single and double quotes, does not appear correctly all the time. In fact, it seems that these punctuation marks appear correctly whenever they are not in a block quote. This could be a problem on my end, but perhaps not.

posted by: Phil on 11.17.05 at 11:48 PM [permalink]

Surprise! The Russians' collective psyche and political paranoia didn't improve (or even change) with the fall of Communism. Russia wasn't the way it was because of Communism. Russian Communism was the way it was because of Russia.

posted by: Mike on 11.17.05 at 11:48 PM [permalink]

Dan, did you mean nonpartisan output or bipartisan output?

I sympathize with the letter's sentiment, but frankly you and just about any name plucked at random from your Rolodex would have more credibility on this issue than two failed Vice-Presidential candidates best know for the distinctiveness of their teeth and hair.

posted by: Zathras on 11.17.05 at 11:48 PM [permalink]

But what about our law against foreign contributions to politcal campaigns?

posted by: Lord on 11.17.05 at 11:48 PM [permalink]

1) I agree with Zanthras
2) Mike-what a useless comment!
3) Now to the point of the letter

Russian public in general is pretty paranoid about the foreign presense in Russia, even if it means business investment, social work etc. For example, back in the day a popular argument against having private property of land was this: "A foreigner would buy land and make it a nuclear waste dump." Also don't forget the law a few years back which basically said that missionaries from non-major "cult" religions were not welcome to do business in Russia.

I am not sure what the rationale was for the law, but I am sure that some NGOs got in trouble in Russia, and as a result all NGOs are viewed unfavorably. I think the example of Ukraine where NGOs were essentially channels of financial support from the West to the Yuschenko camapaign, is also very much in Putin's mind.

Ultimately, without passing judgement, I can easily see how such law may have popular backing in Russia.

posted by: Ivan B Zhabin on 11.17.05 at 11:48 PM [permalink]

Ivan--then why did you repeat it?

posted by: Mike on 11.17.05 at 11:48 PM [permalink]

Mike, let me give an example of repeating useless comments. Amazon has book reviews by readers. You are invited to vote if the review was helpful. Every review which comes down to "this book sucks"/"this book rocks" gets a "No" vote from me because it is useless. If I choose to put my own thoughts in the review, whether I like the book or not, I am bound to "repeat" some of the useless ones before.

Your comment was just an insult to the Russian people, not an argument of any kind.

posted by: Ivan B Zhabin on 11.17.05 at 11:48 PM [permalink]

After 10 years in the working world, I'm back in school in Russian / E. Eur studies. My very capitalist professor (who also advised several countries during the post-soviet transition) was extremely upset about this. And I am too, having worked both in Ukraine and Russia (in an NGO and in private industry).

There is no way the Russian government is in any way able to take on the state-building activities that half of these NGO's have been doing from improving educatonal methods to disaster preparation to AIDS research and mitigation. Given the Russ gov't's increasing clampdown on foreign involvement as well in the energy sector, looks to me like it's a move towards re-centering national assets and capabilities to shore up a counter-West power balance.. this does not bode well for the 2008 elections.

All of this points to more pain inflicted on the Russian people as the "winners" of transition continue to grow sickeningly wealthy, while the populace avoids going to the doctor because quality of state-funded healthcare is so poor, and students must pay thousands of dollars in bribes to go to university.

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