Resetting Human Rights in Russia

President Barack Obama's first meeting with his Russian counterpart Dmitri Medvedev on April 1, offered the world some insight into what shape the promised reset of U.S.-Russia relations will actually take. The apparent willingness to cooperate on areas of mutual concern was matched with a stated willingness to speak frankly about differences, "even bringing up issues of human rights," according to unnamed senior administration officials.

Perhaps the new Obama administration's quest to rehabilitate the United States' reputation internationally as a leader on human rights dovetails with Russia's own new president's stated desire to put an end to the culture of "legal nihilism" in Russia, presenting an opportunity for constructive engagement in promoting human rights to the benefit of both countries, but it is far too early to claim any progress.

The meeting took place the day after the prominent human rights leader Lev Ponomarov, who is 67-years old, was brutally beaten by three unidentified men in Moscow. Such attacks on non-violent government critics in Russia are becoming so commonplace that President Obama cannot avoid realizing that the deteriorating human rights situation in Russia will be an unavoidable part of any new relationship with Moscow he might be able to forge.

There is no doubt that there are many pressing issues for the two countries to cooperate on, from Afghanistan to the financial crisis. It will therefore be tempting for President Obama to set aside the troubling and probably discordant subject of human rights in Russia. Yet President Obama should resist the false hope that he can have less stormy relations with Moscow by soft-pedaling or avoiding completely human rights. The quality of US-Russian relations is unavoidably and rightly affected to a significant degree by human rights conditions inside Russia. Simply put, an increasingly authoritarian Russia that menaces its own people and foments discord with its neighbors cannot be a reliable strategic partner for the United States.

There are few countries where U.S. global leadership on human rights is more needed than in Russia. With the Kremlin's foot on the neck of its neighbors in Central and Eastern Europe through its increasingly monopolistic control of vital natural gas supplies, the United States is one of the few countries in a position to speak plainly about violations that are legitimate issues of international concern. Russia's steady slide towards authoritarianism over the past ten years has coincided with a global pushback against human rights and democracy from entrenched autocratic ruling elites in many countries. Setting a positive tone on human rights in Russia would do much to reverse this negative global trend.

Some in Russia will quickly label criticism of Russia's human rights record as unwarranted foreign interference, but in doing so they will simply be parroting the hackneyed response of autocrats everywhere when called to account for their misdeeds. The Obama administration has already set a new tone that holds some promise for more constructive engagement on human rights with Russia. The introduction to the State Department's annual Country Reports on Human Rights Practices, issued in February, states: "We do not consider views about our performance voiced by others in the international community to be interference in our internal affairs ... nor should other governments regard expressions about their performance as such."

The recent experience of the United States with its highly publicized departures from respect for international human rights standards means that the United States is in no position to deliver moralistic lectures on human rights. Chastened by recent experience, President Obama can now look President Medvedev in the eye and acknowledge that the United States has made some serious mistakes, but that it has recognized them and is moving forward. President Obama can say that in correcting these mistakes it has welcomed and will need the advice and support of its friends. President Obama should take the opportunity of the reset to call on President Medvedev to reverse the "negative trajectory" in Russia's domestic human rights record reported by the State Department last month and propose cooperation on issues of shared concern.

Both Russia and the United States are members of multilateral organizations committed to human rights promotion through cooperation. As members of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, Russia and the United States are mutually bound by a wide range of commitments in the human rights field arrived at through consensus over many years of negotiations. There are many opportunities for the two countries to cooperate in protecting and promoting human rights at home and abroad.

President Medvedev has himself already acknowledged the need for legal reform with regard to human rights and has, for example, publicly recognized the growing problem posed by violent hate crimes, committed largely against Russia's migrant communities by loosely organized neo-Nazi groups. In the United States, thousands of bias-motivated incidents are registered annually by the FBI. This is just one practical example of the opportunities that exist for the two countries to build strong working alliances driven by mutual issues to protect and promote human rights at home and abroad.

The reset of U.S.- Russia relations will not automatically resolve old problems, but it does offer some promise of finding new ways to deal with them that could produce better outcomes.