Missing Pieces from the Nomination Hearing for Ambassador to Russia

A slew of issues were brought up today at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s nomination hearing for Michael McFaul, picked by President Obama to be the next U.S. Ambassador to Russia. Currently serving as a senior director at the National Security Council, Dr. McFaul is widely recognized as the architect of the ‘reset’ approach that employed the double-track diplomacy of reengaging the Kremlin’s high-level officials and Russia’s civil society activists. Led by the Chair of the Subcommittee on European Affairs, Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH), Senators  Lugar (R-IN), Menendez (D-NJ), and Rubio (R-FL) took turns asking questions about topics ranging from nuclear proliferation to Russia’s approach toward Syria, Iran, and China to human rights. In response, Michael McFaul stressed repeatedly that U.S. national interests are driving Obama Administration’s policies toward Russia and that the ‘reset’ was beneficial to both countries. However, the deliverables of ‘reset’ mainly fall in the areas of arms control, economic cooperation, energy security, and diplomatic relations—both bilateral and vis-à-vis third countries.  As the U.S.-Russian relationship evolves and Dr. McFaul settles in his new role in Moscow, the ‘reset’ approach will be tested by its ability to realize concrete improvements in the human rights and democracy promotion portfolios of the White House. The prospective return of Vladimir Putin to the Russian Presidency and the upcoming parliamentary elections in Russia are likely to only further weaken the country’s democratic institutions.  Neither the U.S. nor the European Union has been able to influence this process. What about human rights? Can the United States use the ‘reset’ approach to encourage Russia to improve its human rights practices? Yes—and we can identify two areas where greater U.S.-Russian cooperation is still lacking, but can both bring positive change in Russia and enhance U.S.-Russian engagement on human rights: 1)      Selective Enforcement of So-Called “Anti-Extremist” Legislation. The Problem: Since amending the electoral code in 2006, the Russian government gained the right to apply so-called anti-extremist legislation against candidates running for public office suspected of inciting ethnic or national hatred.  Although this legislation (popularly known as “Article 282”) was adopted to address the problem of violent hate crimes that plagued Russia during the last decade, in reality it is often misused and selectively applied against human rights defenders, independent journalists, and political candidates.  Since 2007, candidates from several opposition parties were scrutinized, receiving official “warnings” and court warrants for allegedly “extremist” slogans or platforms.  This practice is even more prominent in the State’s attempts to impact the media, which is routinely warned for publishing “extremist” texts—in effect, raising additional censorship hurdles for journalists who cover topics relating to elections, human rights, foreign affairs, or interethnic relations.


What To Reset:  The United States must work with the Russian authorities to minimize the misapplication of anti-extremist legislation in Russia against minority religious groups, independent media, human rights defenders, and opposition forces. 1)      Xenophobia and hate crimes in Russia. The Problem: The latest public opinion polls by the independent Levada Center show an increase in xenophobic views held by Russians (46% in 2011, 41% in 2009), and a growing recognition among the population that nationalist attitudes are generally on the rise.  After rising by some 20 percent annually, the number of racist violent attacks on migrants and foreigners is finally reducing, although the overall figures remain extremely high for a European country.  These numbers are reducing as the Russian police continue to go after the perpetrators of these violent crimes, many of whom received appropriately harsh prison terms during the past two years. What To Reset: As the Russian Federation shows more willingness to discuss the issue of xenophobia in the ongoing dialogue with the European Union or at international stages, the Embassy should work to influence the Russian government’s approach to combating xenophobic attitudes and violence and other hate crime. As it considers the confirmation of the U.S. Ambassador to Russia, the Senate has the responsibility to engage its oversight duties and raise the questions about how human rights will be raised and incorporated into U.S. engagement with Russia.


Published on October 12, 2011


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