Russia’s political elite has been showing a striking willingness to take sides in the U.S. election — most notably President Vladimir Putin, whose expression of support for President Bush reflects more than the two leaders’ warm relationship.
Analysts say it stems from a deep distrust of U.S. Democrats, dating to Jimmy Carter’s focus on human rights violations in the Soviet Union, and a Kremlin calculation that John Kerry would be tougher on Putin.
Many Russians, including the current team in the Kremlin, have a lingering bad taste from what they perceived as the Clinton administration’s intense involvement in Russia’s political and economic life. Some saw it as a factor in the rampant corruption that afflicted Russia under Boris Yeltsin and the economic collapse of 1998.
“The Russian leadership very much wants Bush to win,” said Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of a leading foreign affairs journal here. The Kremlin, he said, fears a Kerry administration would pursue “a policy of active participation in Russia’s internal affairs.”
Putin, who last year lambasted Bush for attacking Iraq, all but endorsed him outright last week, saying international terrorists will celebrate a victory if he loses.
As Putin moves to consolidate power after shocking terrorist attacks, pushing for electoral reforms criticized as a major step toward authoritarianism, the last thing he wants is an intrusive new U.S. administration.
“To believe that under Bush, Putin will have carte blanche — ‘Do what you want inside Russia’ — is unrealistic,” Lukyanov said. “But Bush is far less concerned by the question of democracy in Russia than Kerry.”
Would Kerry be tougher?
Others, however, emphasize that it is not clear whether a Kerry administration would be tougher on Russia than a second Bush administration. The situation will be difficult to gauge until next year, when the winning candidate makes key appointments.
There are plenty of Russia hawks close to Bush, said Michael McFaul, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. And while Kerry’s campaign rhetoric on Russia has been harsher than Bush’s, he would be likely to be more compromising as president than as a candidate, analysts say.
Bush was tough on Russia in the 2000 campaign, saying Clinton was too soft on Yeltsin. But after his election, Bush eased up as he pursued Putin’s acquiescence on the creation of a national missile defense system — and, after Sept. 11, his support in the war on terrorism.
Bush “criticized Clinton for being so palsy-walsy with Yeltsin. He said, ‘We won’t have any of this Boris-Bill stuff,”’ said Marshall Goldman, associate director of Harvard’s Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies. “Well, of course, now you’ve got it: You’ve got George and Vladimir.”
Despite some recent criticism, which the Kremlin has dismissed as campaign posturing, Bush has sought Putin’s support on issues including terrorism, Iraq and Iran while paying little attention to events inside Russia — pleasing a president who craves prestige on the world stage but is prickly about interference in his country’s affairs.
Some think change would be good
While Putin has appeared to place his bets on the status quo, others hope a change might charge up what many call stagnant U.S.-Russian ties.
Beyond talk of standing shoulder-to-shoulder against terrorism, there has been little concrete cooperation since Russia offered support for the war in Afghanistan, McFaul said. While Moscow and Washington have come closer on Iraq and the nuclear threat from Iran, discussions of Russian oil supplies to the United States have borne little fruit.
Kremlin critics here, meanwhile, say Russia would benefit from more White House pressure.
“I am certain that this refusal to criticize the actions of the Russian authorities in Chechnya and in the sphere of human rights as a whole, for the sake of good relations and joint actions against terrorism, is a mistake,” said Lyudmila Alexeyeva, a prominent Russian human rights activist.
Fiona Hill, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, said that to make progress on democracy in Russia, the winning candidate will have to address “how one engages with an increasingly rigid Russia.”