Can George Bush Westernize Russia?

During George Bush’s visit to Russia this week, he’s going to achieve many things. He’s going to put the finishing touches on a new, radically simple arms reduction agreement apparently only three pages long. He’s going to discuss the final terms of a new NATO-Russian partnership that will be formally signed in Rome next week. He’s going to add some symbolic flourishes to the new post-9/11 U.S.-Russian anti-terrorist partnership. Toward that end, he’ll probably have his photograph taken, with Laura at his side, in front of some splendid Czarist facades, while the man the president allegedly refers to as “Putty-Put” gives the presidential couple a tour of St. Petersburg, his once-glorious hometown.

The president is also going to give a lot of people a powerful sense of déjà vu. Memories are short these days, I know, but 1997 wasn’t such a very long time ago. In that year, an equally pro-Russian American president and an equally pro-Western Russian president also looked in one another’s eyes and also liked what they saw. Having also decided to forge a new partnership, “based on an enduring political commitment undertaken at the highest political level,” Bill and Boris, predecessors of George and Vladimir, also signed an agreement on NATO-Russian partnership. Indeed, looked at in retrospect, the “Founding Act on Mutual Relations, Cooperation and Security Between NATO and the Russian Federation” signed in Paris in May 1997—precisely five years ago, in other words—is an extraordinarily optimistic document. It speaks of a “historic transformation,” of “strengthening mutual trust and cooperation.” It “defines the goals and mechanisms of consultation, cooperation, joint decision-making and joint action.” Just like this week’s U.S.-Russian summit, it also caused many people to wax eloquent about the “real” end of the Cold War and led many other people to start wondering whether—or rather when—Russia would join NATO itself.

Then came Kosovo, Chechnya, and disputes over missile defense. Then came the expulsion of Russian spies from Washington. At one low point, the Russian government kicked NATO’s representatives out of Moscow, too. At another low point, President Putin took himself off to Shanghai, where he and his Chinese and Central Asian counterparts seemed intent on forming some sort of Asian alternative to NATO. What really spoiled the apparently beautiful U.S.-Russian relationship, however, was not any one event but a more general problem. Since the early 1990s, American diplomacy in Russia has attempted to “Westernize” Russia by persuading Russia to join Western institutions. Just as often, Russia has responded by attempting to “Russify” those same institutions—or at least to change their rules to suit itself.

Look, for example, at Russia’s troubled membership of the Council of Europe, a mild-mannered, low-key international organization that promotes human rights in Europe. After much bitter fighting, the council suspended Russia’s new membership in 2000, alleging that Russian troops had carried out gross human rights violations in Chechnya. Nine months later, its tail between its legs, the council rescinded its decision, although nothing much had changed—in Chechnya or anywhere else. Instead, its leadership simply gave up trying to get Russia to conform. As one of them put it, the alternative was to “sit with our arms crossed and do nothing.” Expulsion had no effect—so Russia was allowed to stay, despite flagrant disregard for both the letter and the spirit of the council’s rules.

A similar problem has plagued Russia’s membership of the Organization on Security and Cooperation in Europe, a somewhat less low-key international organization that monitors various European treaties, has played a large role in the Balkans, and even helped mediate an end to the first Chechen War. Like the Council of Europe, the OSCE also has a human-rights-monitoring mandate, as well as an obligation to end armed conflicts in Europe. When, at an OSCE summit in Istanbul in 1999, some of this was pointed out to Boris Yeltsin—who was then once again at war in Chechnya—he stormed out of the meeting and went home, for all the world like Nikita Khrushchev banging his shoe on the table at the United Nations.

There are other examples, too, the most notable being the International Monetary Fund, which in the 1990s actually invented a new form of no-strings-attached loan just for Russia in order not to offend Russian sensibilities. The result—the billions of dollars wasted on an oil-rich, mineral-rich country that would not help itself—are too well-known to dwell upon. “We are a great country,” said Boris Yeltsin at one point, speaking disdainfully of the IMF’s traditional economic requirements, “and you cannot tell us what to do.”

At least until now, this attitude was the core of the problem. The Russian establishment was willing to join Western clubs—as long Westerners didn’t actually apply all the rules of the clubs, whether economic or political, to Russia. Russia was simply too great a country to be bound by the human rights language in the small print of the treaties, too great a country to be treated like any old banana republic suffering a chronic economic crisis. No wonder so many Russian-Western, Russian-American, and Russian-NATO partnerships, initiatives, and projects ended in tears.

Will George Bush’s optimistic overture to Vladimir Putin end differently? It could—but only if Russia itself is willing to change. There are signs that it might be. In a few weeks last fall, the United States achieved more in Afghanistan than the Soviet army had achieved over many years, a fact that has apparently given Russia’s military cause to doubt its own status as a top-ranking global power. There are also signs that it might not be. More than half of the Russian population still tell opinion pollsters that NATO is a threat, a figure that hardly bodes well for a new NATO-Russian partnership, let alone Russia’s eventual NATO membership.

There are also signs that the Bush administration is less interested in getting Russia to play by Western rules—Chechnya has been emphatically stuffed onto the back burner—which is a mistake. Real Russian-American partnership, as opposed to easily disregarded friendship treaties and easily forgotten newspaper photographs, has to be based on some common values, or at least on some common understanding of what international organizations are for and why countries choose to join them. More to the point, this “Westernization,” or (less Eurocentrically) “democratization” of Russia has to come from within the country, not outside it—and we aren’t quite there yet.