It’s OK to Scold the Backslider

Share via
Michael McFaul is a Hoover fellow and political science professor at Stanford University, and a nonresident associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. With James Goldgeier, his latest book is "Power and Purpose: U.S. Policy Toward Russia After the Cold War."

Before George W. Bush touches down in Moscow this week, he should reread his second inaugural address. In that speech, Bush made clear that advancing freedom and liberty around the world is going to be the foreign policy focus of his second term. His legacy in foreign affairs will now be defined by his success in advancing democracy. Russia presents the greatest challenge.

Lots of ruthless dictators have remained in power during Bush’s tenure, but they were in power before Bush came to the White House. Russia is the only major country in the world that has, during Bush’s time in office, moved from “partly free” to “not free” (as determined by Freedom House, the leading institution in the democracy assessment business). Vladimir V. Putin is also one of the few leaders in the world with whom Bush has developed a close relationship. If Russian democracy completely breaks down while Bush is still in office, Bush’s decision to invest so much time and energy in Putin will look like a strategic mistake.

The prospects for democratic renewal inside Russia do not look encouraging for the remainder of Bush’s second term. Boris N. Yeltsin did not leave Putin with a democratic system of government. And since becoming president in 2000, Putin has done little to strengthen democracy and much to weaken it. He has undermined the autonomy of every political institution in Russia except one. The Federation Council and the State Duma (Russia’s two houses of parliament) are weaker today than they were four years ago. So are independent media, regional governors, the prime minister’s office, independent political parties and civil society. The presidency is now the only meaningful center of decision-making in the country.


Under Putin, this centralization of power may have helped advance economic reform and helped restore the state (though even this cause-and-effect relationship is debatable). But a leader could also use this centralized regime to pursue an anti-reform agenda or create a repressive dictatorship. The struggle to replace Putin in 2008 has already begun, and none of the likely scenarios look promising for democracy.

Putin’s currently favored successor, Defense Minister Sergei B. Ivanov, has demonstrated little proclivity for advancing the democratic cause. And many Russian election experts believe that Ivanov can win only through a fraudulent vote.

In a truly competitive election, however, a nationalist-socialist coalition is likely to produce a more popular candidate than anyone put forth from Russia’s democratic movement.

In a third scenario, Putin supporters would amend the constitution, allowing their candidate to run for a third term. Or they’d give the prime minister’s office more power, and Putin would assume the post.

One of these scenarios will unfold on Bush’s watch. None will bolster Bush’s legacy. Nor does Bush have any good tools in his diplomatic arsenal to alter Russia’s political trajectory. Putin is too popular and Russia is too big for external actors to play more than a marginal role in influencing internal developments.

At the same time, Bush cannot ignore Russia’s democratic backsliding and must instead use his remaining meetings with Putin, including their meeting in Moscow on Monday, to discourage his friend in the Kremlin from making Russia even more autocratic. Bush alone cannot bring back Russian independent television, reverse the carnage in Chechnya or roll back Putin’s decision to appoint governors. But he can make clear that the future of Russian democracy will be a central issue in U.S.-Russian relations for the remainder of his term.


The 60th anniversary of the end of what the Russians call the Great Patriotic War (and what we call World War II) is not the time to lecture Putin publicly about his democratic deficits. At the same time, Bush can signal his commitment to assisting democratic development in Russia in several, more subtle ways.

In private meetings with Putin, Bush must make clear that a democratic transfer of presidential power in 2008 is a precondition for cooperative relations with the United States and for Russia’s continued membership in the G8 group of industrialized nations.

To demonstrate his commitment to a free and fair election in 2008, Putin must state publicly that he will allow domestic and international monitors to observe the vote, that he will not limit the opposition’s access to national television (including the ability to buy ads on the state-run channels) and that his government will not harass or jail business people who contribute to opposition candidates.

Bush must also tell Russia’s democrats that he is committed to their cause. Bush has pledged his support to democrats in Iran. Why not do the same to democrats in Russia? He can bolster the meaning of these words by meeting directly and often with Russian human rights activists, civic leaders and business people.

And the Bush administration has to speak with one voice. When unnamed “senior officials” speak on background to journalists, they contend that pushing Putin toward democracy is a lower priority than winning his cooperation on Iran and North Korea, and some White House aides suggest that Russia’s backsliding on democracy is less dramatic than it seems.

Bush must end these mixed messages and his administration also must work harder to get our Europeans allies on message as well. Putin has successfully cultivated relationships with his counterparts in France, Germany and Britain, undercutting what should be a united Western opposition to Russia’s democratic backsliding. In addition, the Bush administration must reconfigure its foreign aid package to Russia to give greater support to those activities and organizations dedicated to making Russia’s 2007 parliamentary election and 2008 presidential election free and fair.


In Serbia in 2000, Georgia in 2003 and Ukraine in 2004, monitoring organizations carried out exit polls and parallel vote tabulations that proved critical to exposing voter fraud. Similar technologies and organizations must be developed in Russia. Finally, Bush must sustain what his visit to Georgia on Tuesday will begin: a show of moral and economic support for the countries in the region that have recently experienced democratic breakthroughs.

The project of building democracy is far from over in either Georgia or Ukraine. In contrast to Russia, however, leaders in both of these countries want to work with the United States to consolidate their democratic gains. Assisting them in this must be Bush’s priority.

The failure of democracy in Georgia or Ukraine will bolster anti-democratic groups inside Russia, while success will aid Russia’s democratic forces.

Getting serious about Russian democracy does not mean isolating or containing Russia. Nor does a new strategy for promoting Russian democracy mean that other issues in U.S.-Russian relations need to be neglected. During the Cold War, U.S. presidents worked toward arms control with their Soviet counterparts and promoted freedom within the communist world at the same time.

Bush can work with Putin to fight terror and prevent proliferation of weapons of mass destruction while seeking to foster democracy in Russia. There need not be tradeoffs or linkage between these agendas. But let’s be clear. The Russian president has worked with the United States in the war on terrorism or international nonproliferation efforts only when he thought that cooperation advanced Russian national interests, and never to do Bush a favor. Less talk about democracy is not going to make Putin more eager to cooperate on Iran or North Korea.

Even if Bush fails to help the cause of Russian democracy, he should at least signal clearly and boldly whose side he is on. At least then, when historians assess his legacy, they will give him credit for trying.