Barack Obama has an opportunity to support democracy in Russia
At the end of his first visit to Russia, Barack Obama must certainly understand the opportunity that lays before him.
Perhaps more than anything else, Obama has the opportunity to not make the same mistake that George W Bush did.
Bush made the mistake of failing to make the same pro-democracy stand in Russia as he claimed he was making in Iraq. In his extremely soft approach to then-President (and now Prime Minister) Vladimir Putin, Bush played directly into Putin's hands.
"Putin is immune unless he hears a firm reaction from the top man," former World Chess champion and Soldarinost leader Gary Kasparov told Playboy Magazine in 2008. "He doesn't care about clerks, even Condoleezza Rice. Only a message from the top counts. Everything else is a game. When Putin made some of the statements that implied he could stay in office for a third term, he didn't hear anything from Bush. President Bush, you stuck up for him; you looked into his eyes. Why are you silent now? Instead, what does Putin hear? Condoleezza Rice says, 'we'd rather have him inside than outside the tent.'"
"This philosophy has never worked before," Kasparov continued. "Churchill said 'no matter how beautiful the strategy, occasionally you must check the results.' For seven years, with engagement by the West and with the influx of capitalism, Putin destroyed all democratic institutions in Russia. So we all remember that Bush said he looked into Putin's eyes. Putin looked into Bush's eyes as well. He saw he could push Bush's limits. Every time he pushes he tests the waters. He pushes and Bush does nothing."
The challenge for Obama is evident: he must not allow Putin to push his limits.
Obama has the advantage of having to deal not directly with Putin, but rather through Dmitri Medvedev.
But even amidst some seeming efforts by Medvedev to wield Presidential power himself, as opposed to merely being a lackey for the former President, Putin will remain a factor in dealings between the two leaders.
But Obama seemed to be alluding to Putin in many of his reflective comments after his visit. The allusions were far less than flattering.
"I think that Americans and Russians share an interest in strengthening the rule of law, democracy and human rights," Obama explained. "To quote my inaugural speech: ‘To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history; but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.’ Later, speaking in Cairo, I said: ‘I have an unyielding belief that all people yearn for certain things: the ability to speak your mind and have a say in how you are governed; confidence in the rule of law and the equal administration of justice; government that is transparent and doesn’t steal from the people; the freedom to live as you choose. Those are not just American ideas, they are human rights.’"
Obama may, however, be underestimating the Russian leadership's commitment to these values.
"These ideas are shared by your President and your people," Obama continued. "I agree with President Medvedev when he says that ’some freedom is better than no freedom.’ I therefore see no reason why the ‘reset’ in relations cannot include the common desire to strengthen democracy, human rights and the rule of law."
For his own part Gary Kasparov is unimpressed by Obama's sentiments.
"Abandon the policy of double standards and call a spade a spade," Kasparov said. "Stop pretending that the current regime under Putin is democratic and thus give it a carte blanche for further abuses."
Obama's stance on Russia is a definitive improvement over George W Bush's, but some improvements clearly need to be made. Obama cannot afford to repeat the mistakes of his predecessor.