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#7 - JRL 7261
From: Ira Straus <IRASTRAUS@aol.com>
Date: Tue, 22 Jul 2003
Subject: re 7257 Washington Post/ YUKOS: the rhetoric of disengagement

What is to be done? The Washington Post's conclusion is instructive, in a dangerous way:

"While it may not be appropriate for the United States to come to the defense of a particular company [YUKOS], this affair should cause the administration to wonder whether Russia really is ready to be a stable American ally, as some believe, and whether it is correct to describe the country as a "democracy," as is now customarily done." (Washington Post July 20, 2003 Editorial, "Oil Wars")

The opposite conclusion would make more sense, on all three questions:

1. It would indeed be appropriate for the US to act (preferably quietly, in order to succeed) on behalf of relatively honest business and for pluralism of relatively honest wealth-power centers in Russia. It's important for the prospects for democracy.

2. It is also appropriate to encourage the vision of Russia-West alliance or Russia as a part of the West, as an anchor for the Russian national identity; and to engage Russia diplomatically and strategically in order to strengthen the trend toward this result.

Of course, the question is not "whether Russia is ready to be a stable American ally"; the question is whether both sides are ready to do the hard creative work, compromising, and bureaucracy-nudging that is needed for developing a closer alliance. Something which in fact they have been doing better in the last two years than in the decade prior to Sept. 11, but could still be doing a lot better.

3. Similarly, it doesn't seem relevant to ask whether it is correct to describe Russia as a democracy, since usually Russia isn't called a democracy. What this seems to amount to is a swipe against any encouraging talk about democratization in Russia. But such talk is essential for validating past progress, for providing a fair and honest context for criticism, and as a way of encouraging further progress.

How is it that the Washington Post reaches the opposite conclusion on all questions (and misstates the questions rhetorically)? Why the tendency of this editorial to push toward disengagement and a sour spirit on all levels - democratization, alliance, and sentiment - rather than engagement? It is not as if there's not enough at stake to justify an effort at engagement.

The answer is anyone's guess, but above-cited paragraph suggests an interesting possibility. That paragraph seems to be mainly concerned with a strategy for finding a comfort level in its public rhetoric, not with the question of what is the best strategy for dealing with the opportunities and dangers in Russia. Not exactly a wise balance of concerns, for the capital city of the world's only superpower. I sense in it a feeling that there is some danger of getting burned if any language is used that treats Russia in a hopeful way; or perhaps it is a sense that there is some reward in it for burning others for pro-Russian deviations.

I think this tells us much about media, and about NGOs, in their language on Russia. They seem concerned about the moral status that will be attributed to their public language, in a society where anti-Soviet language was for many decades a sine qua non for moral status on the winning side in the Cold War, and where for various reasons anti-Russian language today still wins approbation and reinforcement, and pro-Russian language gets pounced on as naive or vicious, in numerous entrenched circles.

Democratization suffers from this. Alliance suffers. American interests suffer. And the integrity of media and NGO discourse suffers from it.

Ira Straus

U.S. coordinator, Committee on Eastern Europe and Russia in NATO

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