#12 - JRL 2009-133 - JRL Home
Date: Wed, 15 Jul 200
From: Tom Thomson <tthomson@rstinternational.com>

Attached for your consideration is a brief analysis of President Obama’s approach to civil liberties and rule of law issues during last week’s summit with President Medvedev. The focus of the piece is the outcome of the Obama-Medvedev Summit with respect to rule of law and civil liberties. My submission attempts to put into perspective the change in the US position on these issues and if Russia is willing to accept responsibility for making these changes, knowing that they no longer will be able to charge the US with interfering in Russia’s internal affairs.

In past US-Russia presidential summits, the US has taken aggressive stances on the need for press freedoms, unfettered political dissent and the creation of a civil society that respects rule of law. However, President Obama didn’t lecture Russia as did his predecessors, but made it clear that these are not US-Russia issues, but issues for Russians to decide. He added that establishing rule of law must be done out of self interest and not because of coercion. Countries that respect rule of law are strong and prosperous. And those that don’t limit their potential for economic growth and improvement. In essence, President Obama has placed responsibility for creating a society based on rule of law in Russia’s court.

Tom Thomson
RST International, LLC
The Flour Mill Building, 5th Floor
1000 Potomac Street, NW
Washington, DC 20007



The two-day Obama-Medvedev Summit in Moscow helped to repair the tattered US-Russia relationship by concluding agreements on nuclear disarmament and Afghanistan and by establishing a joint commission to work together on economic issues, energy and terrorism, among other critical issues. By downplaying more divisive issues, such as Georgia, Iran’s nuclear ambitions and missile defense systems in Eastern Europe, the two leaders showed a willingness to work together.

The efforts of Presidents Obama and Medvedev, and Prime Minister Putin to highlight points of cooperation and to soften areas of contention were evident throughout the summit and showed that both sides recognized that much was at stake in this first Summit between the two presidents, both elected in 2008. Their actions will influence the course of the US-Russia relationship for the next several years.

President Obama’s approach was nuanced and unconventional. Unlike his predecessor, President Obama refused to lecture Russians on rule of law or civil liberties and admitted to America’s own mistakes: “By no means is America perfect. But it is our commitment to certain universal values which allow us to correct imperfections, to improve constantly and to grow stronger over time.” In essence, President Obama said that Russia’s actions toward democratic institutions, civil liberties and press freedoms are not issues between the US and Russia, but issues between the Russian government and its citizens. But make no mistake, the President Obama’s message to Russia was clear: embrace rule of law out of self-interest and not coercion. He said that countries that practice rule of law are more prosperous and strong. And those that trample on civil liberties and fail to honor the sanctity of contracts never reach their full economic potential. President Obama placed the ball squarely in Russia’s court.

The high profile ground-breakings of new production facilities in Russia by PepsiCo and John Deere, and an agreement between Boeing and Russia’s major producer of titanium airplane parts, were welcome news during tough economic times. But even these commercial agreements couldn’t drown out the cries of American and Russian companies at a recent US-Russia Business Summit that corruption and crooked judges were killing the economy’s potential to grow.

President Medvedev has made anti-corruption and rule of law signature issues of his administration. He spearheaded anti-corruption legislation that requires all government employees to disclose their income in and out of government and establishes harsh penalties for taking bribes. However, most Russians are skeptical that any laws can reverse the pervasive graft and bribery that exists at all levels of government and society. Legislating ethics is far easier than getting people to embrace it as their code of behavior.

So is creating an independent judiciary. Russians and foreigners alike acknowledge that undue influence and political pressure has undermined the integrity of Russia’s judiciary. One high profile example has been the retrial of imprisoned oil magnate Mikhail Khordokovsky for essentially the same crimes he was imprisoned for. Other cases touched the core of the struggle for independent media in Russia’s and revealed blatant violations of court procedures.

In a surprise announcement two weeks before the Obama-Medvedev Summit, Russia’s chief prosecutor announced that the investigation into journalist Anna Politkovskaya’s murder would be reopened. Within hours after President Obama left Russia for the G8 meeting in Italy, it was announced that the case of Paul Klebnikov, the slain American editor of Forbes Russia case would not only be reopened, but that Russia would cooperate with US law enforcement in the investigation.

Yes, credit for these developments should largely be attributed to political pressure from the families of the slain journalists and human rights organizations, as well as the U.S. government. However, credit should also be given to President Medvedev, Russian judges, prosecutors and the Russian citizens who recognized long before President Obama’s arrival that rule of law is not a foreign concept, but something to strive for on behalf of all Russians. Americans should support the effort of Russians to help themselves.

Tom Thomson is a Washington, DC-based international business and strategic communications consultant, who frequently travels to Russia. He can be contacted at TJThomson84@gmail.com.

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