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Democracy in Russia

Under Putin, there’s less and less of it.

Sep 1, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 47 • By ELLEN BORK
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Leaders of Russia’s democratic opposition see the connection between Putin’s aggression abroad and his domestic agenda. They reject as “flimsy” the pretext—protecting ethnic Russians—on which the Ukraine aggression is based. “The main reason” for the aggression in Ukraine, said Mikhail Kasyanov and Boris Nemtsov, co-chairmen of PARNAS at the outset of Putin’s assault on Ukraine, “is the reluctance of the Russian authorities to recognize the Ukrainian people’s sovereign right to its own fate. .  .  . Putin is trying to stifle freedom not only in Russia, but also in a neighboring country.” 

Western governments have yet to appreciate this. Announcing new U.S. sanctions against Russia’s banking, energy, and arms industries on July 29, President Obama cast the measures as addressing only the “very specific issue of Ukraine.” 

The West should seek more than just an “off-ramp” for Putin in Ukraine. Russia is already committed to free elections and human rights through its membership in the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and the Council of Europe. Restoring these principles to a central role would begin to address the link between Putin’s domestic agenda and his foreign adventurism, now on display in Ukraine, later perhaps elsewhere. Neglecting them will allow Putin to exempt Russia from universal values and make the work of Russia’s democrats much harder. Until the West takes these principles—and the Russians who want to live under them—seriously, it will treat only the symptoms rather than the cause of Putin’s aggression.

Ellen Bork is director of democracy and human rights at the Foreign Policy Initiative.

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