Bad Date

                                      (This piece originally appeared on Russia Beyond the Headlines)

Michael McFaul, the sixth U.S. ambassador to post-Soviet Russia, arrived in Moscow on Saturday, Jan. 14.  On Monday, his first day on the job, McFaul met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.  The next day, McFaul invited a group of Russian politicians and civil-society activists for a short meeting at the Spaso House, U.S. ambassador’s residence. 

McFaul came in Moscow at a challenging time in U.S.-Russia relations: the “reset,” of which he is widely considered one of the architects, has obviously stalled over a host of difficult issues, such as European missile defense and Russia’s position on Syria and Iran.  Making things worse, anti-American rhetoric has been on the rise in the past few weeks after Prime Minister Vladimir Putin accused U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton of inciting the anti-government protests that swept Moscow and other Russian cities in December.

Complicating McFaul’s life even further are the presidential elections taking place in both countries.  It seems almost certain that no serious decision concerning U.S.-Russia relations can be made or even contemplated until after Putin’s expected inauguration in May. Given the lack of warmth between Putin and U.S. President Barack Obama, it’s also unlikely that Putin will move quickly to establish solid rapport with him until Obama is re-elected.  Moreover, should a Republican president move into the White House next January, the very fate of the “reset” will become uncertain.  Nor is it certain at all that a Republican president will keep McFaul in Moscow.  It’s therefore conceivable that in the best case scenario, this year, McFaul won’t be extremely busy with his ambassadorial duties.  In the worst case scenario, this year will be his last.

But let’s not forget that Michael McFaul is not only one of the architects of the “reset;” he’s even better known as one of the leading U.S. experts in “democracy promotion.”  (His latest book is titled “Advancing democracy abroad: why we should and how we can.”)  Speaking of McFaul at the swearing ceremony, his new boss, Hillary Clinton, said:

“Few Americans know Russia or know democracy better than Mike McFaul.  And I can think of no better representative of our values and our interest in a strong, politically vibrant, open, democratic Russia, as well as a deepening U.S.-Russian partnership.”

Was it by accident that in this sentence, Clinton mentioned “democratic Russia” before “a deepening U.S.-Russian partnership?”

By sending the prominent expert in “democracy promotion” McFaul to Moscow, the Obama administration is trying to appease the critics of the “reset” who charge that its benefits came at the expense of what they call “Russia’s deteriorating human right situation.”  Evidently, the attempts by the administration to show that the focus of its Russia policy is shifting to human rights issues have not been lost on Obama’s critics.  Mark Kirk, the hawkish senator from Illinois who voted for McFaul’s confirmation, said that he was the right man for the job:

“I will be supporting his nomination also because he will be good in working with the opposition and human rights communities in Russia.”

And “working with the opposition” is exactly what McFaul is going to do in Moscow, as his second day on the job clearly shows.  Being aware that he may not be able to buttress his reputation as an architect of the “reset,” McFaul may have decided to use his new position to advance his credentials as expert on “democracy promotion.”  For future use.

While McFaul’s objectives for the date with members of the Russian opposition might be well understood, the same can’t be said about his Russian sweethearts.  Sure, their loyalty to McFaul, who always showed his support for them, is commendable.  But now that hundreds of thousands of ordinary Russians around the country have hit the streets in the protest actions organized by the opposition, it’s time for the opposition leaders to realize that they have another, more important, constituency to care about; it’s time for them to reassess their priorities – and to learn how to explain them.  The people who came to the Embassy – all no strangers to media attention – could at the very least tell the journalists blocking the entrance to the Spaso House about the goals of their meeting with McFaul.  Instead, they were sneaking inside the building as if deliberately trying to project an image of co-conspirators heading for a secret gathering.  One could call unwarranted or even insulting Putin’s insinuations of the foreign involvement in the protest movement.  Yet McFaul’s dates did a great job in lending support to such insinuations.

The Kremlin likes to point to the marginal character of the Russian opposition: no single leader, no unified platform, and no brazen ideas.  This is true: when you treat the grass around your house with napalm, it’s difficult to expect your lawn being of a golf-course quality.  But the opposition does exist, and for the first time ever, it may even have broad public support.  Not to lose the moment, the opposition leaders must rapidly grow up.  Generating ideas and creating platforms may take years.  Learning fundamental lessons of good behavior shouldn’t take this long.  This is one of them: always consider very carefully from whom you accept a date. Even if you enjoyed it, it could still turn out to be bad for your reputation.

About Eugene Ivanov

Eugene Ivanov is a PMI-certified Innovation Management Consultant who helps organizations increase the efficiency of their internal and external innovation programs.
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11 Responses to Bad Date

  1. Alex says:

    Hi, Eugene
    It is another holiday in our lands, so I can read your blog 🙂 ..and with this one I agree. Perhaps, His Excellency should read this your post too and do not unnecessarily exclude Himself from the advice you gave to the “opposition”. This will do good to the image of the country he represents. As for the “opposition”, I feel that the real intentions of (most of) these guys are well described in a paragraph from Pelevin’s SHUFF .The paragraph starts with “Пятьдесят шесть. О мухах” 🙂


  2. Eugene says:

    Thanks Alex,

    By agreeing with me, you’ve brought a holiday in “my” land 🙂


  3. Alexander Mercouris says:

    Dear Eugene,

    I cannot agree too strongly with everything you have written in this article. I wish and hope the opposition reads it and takes it to heart. It would do itself a power of good if it did and it would be good for the successful and democratic development of Russia if it did as well.

  4. Eugene says:

    Dear Alexander,

    Thank you for your support. I suspect it’ll take more than just reading my blog for the Russian opposition to come to terms with the reality. On the other hand, they can always rely on my help:)


    • Alexander Mercouris says:

      Dear Eugene,

      They should read your blog. As you know we do not always see eye to eye but your articles are invariably full of shrewd commentary and good advice, Just consider for example where the two of us started a few weeks ago. As you will recall shortly before the parliamentary elections you suggested a string of legal changes and constitutional amendments some of which have now become official policy. Whether anything will come of them is of course another matter but the fact that they are being proposed at all is a sure sign that as you correctly identified Russia’s democratic political evolution needs and would benefit from them. The opposition would get a lot further and achieve a lot more if it took heed of your blog whilst paying less attention to the hyperbolic and relentlessly negative commentary I have found in such of its journalism as is accessible to me in English.

      • Eugene says:

        Dear Alexander,

        Thank you very much again for your kind words. Yet I have to say that nothing of what I’ve been proposing over the past few weeks breaks completely new ground. Many of my proposals can be found, for example, in the document prepared by INSOR (chaired by Igor Yurgens and patronized by none other than President Medvedev) titled “Russia of the XXI Century. The image of desired tomorrow.” Incidentally, this document was expected to become Medvedev’s election platform had he chosen to run for the second term. And even INSOR’s proposals aren’t completely original. In a sense, the direction of political reforms in Russia is easy to predict: you just look back at where Russia was before Putin began his “reforms:” direct governor elections, mixed pattern of Duma elections, relaxed rules of registration of political parties. Rewind this tape back and you get Medvedev’s “reforms.”

        The purpose of this blog is obviously not to teach Russians (opposition or otherwise) on how they should arrange their things: they know it better than me. However, if my writings help, at least a bit, Western readers to better understand the situation in the country, I definitely consider my mission “being accomplished.”


        • Alexander Mercouris says:

          Dear Eugene,

          I think you are being altogether too modest. The fact that Yurgens and others may have proposed some of these reforms or that something that outwardly resembled these arrangements may have existed in the very different conditions that existed before Putin came to power is neither here nor there. The point is that you raised the issue of these reforms now on the eve of the elections and at the start of a political cycle in which they are firmly on the agenda. I have already voiced frustration that the opposition, which ought to be pushing these reforms now shows no interest in them. It seems to me that what you bring if only the opposition would read what you say is an understanding still not really grasped in Russia that in a society that aspires to be a democracy opposition is an important and serious task in itself and that institutions do matter as much as personalities.

          As to informing non Russians about the situation in Russia on that I think you need have no concerns. I for one find your articles exceptionally informative and instructive even when (and sometimes especially when) I do not wholly agree with them.

          • Eugene says:

            Dear Alexander,

            As we discussed in the past, the Russian opposition is a very broad term. At the moment, it consists of roughly 3 pieces: the political opposition per se, both systemic (Zyuganov, Zhirinovsky, Mironov) and non-systemic (Ryzhkov, Nemtsov, Kasyanov); civil activists (Navalny, Chirikova); and intellectual elites (Akunin, Bykov, Parfenov). And this is atop of a huge, largely amorphous, mass of protesters who are united ONLY by the sense of having been cheated on December 4.

            The political opposition per se has long called for the political reforms we’re talking about, but the authorities have been able to ignore them because of their small size and impotence. Navalny and Chirikova haven’t shown any particular interest in the matter mainly because of their focus on other things. The elites have been traditionally shy of “dirty politics.” Finally, the protesters have never been interested in things like that — as a matter of principle.

            Now, it’s very interesting point. Everyone understands that the protesters’ main demand — honest elections — won’t be met because this can’t be done by a single “decree” or a “law.” You need a comprehensive political reform. The two parts of the “opposition” — civil activists and the elites — need to realize that without demands for political reforms, they can’t achieve anything at all. So now, they must embrace “purely” political agenda.

            And then, there is a huge question: what about the thousands of “simple” protesters? Will they follow their current, perhaps temporary leaders? Some will, some won’t. The ration between the two is likely to determine the pace of future changes in Russia.

            I fully realize that I’ve cut a number of corners explaining my position on this, but, hopefully, you understand the core of it.


            • Alex says:

              .. and one “corner”, it seems, was the “nationalist card” .

              • Eugene says:

                Hi Alex,

                You’re right, I didn’t mention it. One reason is that there are no representatives of the explicitly nationalistic movements among the protest organizers. True, the nationalists are allowed/invited to march with the rest, but I see no particular problem with that.


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