Russian Human Rights: Is the U.S. Backing Off?

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SERGEY KONKOV / AFP / Getty Images

Russian police arrest a political opposition activist at a rally in St. Petersburg on May 31, 2010.

Since his first meeting with Kremlin leaders in Moscow last July, President Barack Obama has established a dialogue with Russia over some critical issues — Iran, Afghanistan, nuclear arms reduction, missile defense — and all of these have yielded progress, even if meager and tentative. But when it came time last week for an unprecedented meeting — involving Russian and American officials, along with human-rights advocates — to discuss the issue of human rights, the dialogue with the Kremlin hit a wall. The Russian side came away pleased that there had been no criticism from the Americans, none of the condescension they remember from the Bush years. The American side, for its part, seemed content to have raised these issues, showing that they have not forgotten them in their eagerness to be friends again. Still, for the rights activists who were at the the table — a presence that was historic — the whole process seemed little more than unproductive political theater.

The meeting's location, which was chosen by the Kremlin, was about as poignant a symbol of Russia's past rights abuses as one could find outside the Gulags. Standing about 100 miles east of Moscow, Vladimir Central Prison housed some of the Soviet Union's most prominent political prisoners, including the activist Vladimir Bukovsky, several of Stalin's relatives, and the American U2 pilot Francis Gary Powers. Also hovering over last week's talks was a much more recent prison scandal. Sergei Magnitsky, a lawyer who once represented an American investment fund in Russia, had died six months before, on Nov. 16, after being refused medical treatment for months at Moscow's Butyrka prison. He had been awaiting trial on tax fraud charges for nearly a year.

Magnitsky's mother, Natalya, received a visit the day before the talks from the head of the U.S. delegation, Michael McFaul, who is Obama's special assistant on National Security Affairs. McFaul also met that day with more than a dozen rights activists, opposition leaders, journalists and bloggers, many of whom complained to him about what they see as the suppression of democracy and basic freedoms in Russia, and the slow pace of President Dmitry Medvedev's reforms. Moreover, Obama's new National Security Strategy was published on the same day as the meeting at Vladimir, May 27, and it pledged not to shy away from these issues. "America's commitment to democracy, human rights, and the rule of law are essential sources of our strength and influence in the world," Obama wrote in that document.

The talks at Vladimir were to be the first concrete test of these new commitments, and they seemed like a historic opportunity. Never before had both White House and Kremlin officials met on Russian soil specifically to discuss issues of human rights. Sitting across the table from McFaul would be the Kremlin's deputy chief of staff, Vladislav Surkov, whose appointment in 2009 to the U.S.-Russian working group on civil society had raised an outcry among rights activists. He is not known in Russia to be a friend of the liberal cause. The Russian doctrine of "sovereign democracy" is his brainchild, and it has been widely seen as mixing a heavy dose of authoritarianism into Russia's version of democracy. Nevertheless, the start of the meeting was cordial. The participants began with a tour of the prison — which had been scrubbed and prepped for their arrival — and then drove into the town of Vladimir for a closed-door discussion. No transcript has been released.

But at a briefing on June 1, the Kremlin's human rights ombudsman, Vladimir Lukin, who had been seated beside Surkov, said there had been "almost no criticism" from the Americans. Asked by TIME after the briefing what subjects had been raised, he said McFaul had tried to bring up Russia's electoral system, which has been marred by nearly constant allegations of fraud. But the American was told that "this issue had not yet matured," Lukin recalls, and the matter was dropped. (Reached by TIME, McFaul did not dispute this.) "In fact he didn't really make any criticism at all," Lukin says. He describes the rest of the meeting as one of harmless self-criticism. "What's the point of criticizing us when we criticize ourselves? We criticized ourselves a little about corruption. They criticized themselves a little about Guantanamo. It was all very friendly." Lukin adds: "Haven't you noticed? We're gradually turning into allies... Since there was no criticism towards us, we didn't criticize them."

McFaul says he came away with a different impression. First off, one of the crucial elements of U.S. human rights policy is interacting directly with activists and opposition figures, he says, and that was done in Moscow the previous day. Several of them were even invited to the meeting in Vladimir and given a rare chance to make their case for reforms in front of a senior Kremlin official. "There was a frank exchange of views at the meeting, oftentimes a heated exchange of views on controversial issues, such as what happened to Magnitsky," he says, pointing out that a bill is being considered in Russia to prevent pre-trial detention for charges like the ones Magnitsky was facing. "In my personal interactions with Surkov," he adds, "including private ones, there is no issue that I don't discuss with him."

But some of the Russian activists who participated came away feeling let down, more by Surkov's intransigence than McFaul's complaisance. Svetlana Gannushkina, a member of Medvedev's Human Rights Council, tells TIME that McFaul did try to raise several rights issues, including the Magnitsky case, but was asked not to turn the talks "into an interrogation." "Unfortunately, my fellow citizens in power have such an immense complex of inferiority that they cannot bear to go forward with these discussions," Gannushkina says. "We shouldn't be proud of the fact that there was no criticism. We should not be glad of the fact that we visited this prison and they showed us a Potemkin village, and everyone patted each other on the back and said how wonderful things are. This is nothing to be proud of." Her fellow activist, Elena Tyuryukanova, Russia's leading defender of migrants' rights, says there was nothing at the meeting that could be called a free exchange of ideas. "It was clear to me that the goal was completely political. It was a political exercise to show that they are officially having discussions. But nothing came out of it, no criticism and no discussions."

Later this month, when Medvedev is set to visit the United States, Obama will have another chance to raise some of these issues. Maryland Senator Benjamin Cardin, a Democrat, has pointedly asked the State Department to punish 60 officials linked to the Magnitsky case by denying their American visas, and he tells TIME that he will insist that human rights are put higher on Obama's agenda ahead of Medvedev's visit. He also points out that according to Obama's National Security Strategy released last week, the U.S. could apply direct pressure if its partners don't get the message on human rights. Indeed, the document states: "When our overtures are rebuffed, we must lead the international community in using public and private diplomacy, and drawing on incentives and disincentives, in an effort to change repressive behavior." But with so much riding on better ties with Russia (such as it's tentative support for sanctions on Iran), Obama could be tempted to back off. Although that may be the pragmatic thing to do in light of McFaul's experience, it is not likely to win the President many friends in the human rights community, or among the people eager for more democracy in Russia.