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Kommersant, Russia

The US Has Nothing Left
in Common with Russia

By Elena Chernenko, Olga Kuznetsova, Maria-Luisa Trimasté

Washington has turned away from cooperation with Moscow on the issue of civil society.

Translated By Rina Hay

26 January 2013

Edited by Kyrstie Lane

Russia - Kommersant - Original Article (Russian)

Yesterday we found out about Washington's decision to leave the Working Group on Civil Society of the Russian-American Bilateral Presidential Commission, which was founded in 2009 as part of the “reset” in U.S.-Russian relations. The U.S. explained that the decision had been made “in light of recent steps by the Russian government to impose restrictions on civil society.” Our source in the State Department explained that “they are speaking of the laws which Moscow approved last summer,” and “Russia's disproportional reply to the Magnitsky Act has only strengthened Washington's decision.” Russian human rights activists have deplored the decision to cease the group's work. Experts believe that in the present circumstances, Russia and the U.S. would in any case not have been able to agree on any aspect of civil society.

We were informed yesterday of the U.S.'s decision to leave the joint working group by Thomas Melia, assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, and co-chairman of the group on the American side. He explained the reasons behind this decision thus: “The group was a bilateral mechanism for collaboration on the development of civil society. As in the last year the Russian government has taken measures which hinder the development of civil society, [the group] is no longer an appropriate or effective forum that would facilitate the development and strengthening of civil society.”

The Russian-American Presidential Commission, known as the “Medvedev-Obama commission,” was created on July 6, 2009 during the U.S. president's visit to Russia. In the spirit of the declared “reset” in relations between the two countries, the main tasks of the commission were stated as “overcoming the Cold War mentality” and beginning a new stage of cooperation for the sake of “ensuring mutual progress and prosperity in the future.” The co-chairmen of the group on civil society were Vladislav Surkov, first deputy leader of the Presidential Administration, and Michael McFaul, Assistant to the U.S. president. A year ago, they were replaced by career diplomats – Human Rights Commissioner Konstantin Dolgov and Assistant Secretary of State Thomas Melia.

Our source in the State Department explained that the decision to leave the group was due to “Moscow's decision to approve a number of anti-democratic laws last summer,” and that it had been discussed in Washington as early as November and December of last year. The U.S. had frequently made appeals to Russian powers during the negotiations of this period. On Nov. 1, at a meeting of permanent representatives of OSCE in Vienna, U.S. Representative Gary Robbins stated that Washington was concerned about “other new laws passed this summer to restrict public assemblies, institute onerous ‘foreign agent’ registration requirements on NGOs, re-criminalize libel, and impose new restrictions on Internet content.”

“These measures appear to be orchestrated to stifle dissent and to discourage Russian citizens from exercising their rights and fundamental freedoms,” noted Mr. Robbins.

“The last straw was Russia's disproportional response to the U.S.'s approval of the Magnitsky Act,” explained our source in the State Department. He misspoke, saying that Washington was not reacting to the ban on American adoption of Russian orphans, but to the “tightening of laws for Russian NGOs.” According to the law adopted by the State Duma, dual nationals of the U.S. and Russia are forbidden to act as directors of NGOs within the Russian Federation, or to engage in political activities.

Moscow's reaction to the news from Washington was muted. The Foreign Ministry has explained that it will reply to the State Department as soon as it has received a written notification of the decision. Dmitri Peskov, press-secretary to the president, expressed regret over the U.S.'s decision to leave the group, not excluding that the 19 remaining subgroups of the bilateral commission will now have to “reformat.”

Russian human rights activists have also been affected by this news. “In cases like these, it is better to have a dialogue than to talk behind each others’ backs,” said human rights ombudsman Vladimir Lukin. “The effect of this decision will be negative: if even one of the forums for dialogue is removed, our dialogue will become less productive.”

Elena Panfilova, Director of Transparency International Russia, emphasized that through the work of the group on civil society, “Russia and the U.S. were able to discuss a number of relevant issues together. We cannot say that there were any breakthroughs as a result of its activities, but, for example, one of the topics discussed was the helping of children and assistance to organizations in the search for missing children,” Ms. Panfilova explained to us. “The U.S. has acquired a great deal of rich experience on this issue, which would be highly useful to us. If we now cannot learn from this experience – that is bad.”

On the contrary, the opposition was perfectly satisfied with Washington's decision. “It is good that the U.S. left the group – better late than never,” said Boris Nemtsov, co-chairman of the RPR-Parnassus party. He added that he believed from the very beginning that “the establishment of a group on civil society with Surkov, pursuer of dissidents, falsifier of elections and proponent of censorship, was hypocrisy and a shame.”

It is worth noting that Moscow had earlier expressed dissatisfaction with the work of the group on civil society and had not excluded the possibility of freezing its work. Fedor Lukyanov, editor of “Russia in Global Politics,” told us that turning away from this mechanism is “completely logical, since it barely even worked. To discuss the problems of civil society in the current situation from diametrically opposite positions would be entirely useless, in the expert's opinion. The U.S.'s decision to leave the group was not just a gesture, but also a recognition of reality. Moscow and Washington would not be able to agree on this theme, and it would make no sense to meet just for show.”

According to Fedor Lukyanov, the format of the working group has been exhausted, as “Russia has lost its desire to convince Americans that its political and civil society is not as bad as they think. There is a fundamental difference between the time when the commission was created and the current situation,” he explained. “Previously, when faced with any disagreement Moscow has insisted: 'We are moving in the right direction, you will not hold us back, we will continue to move at the speed and with the dynamics that are right for the development of Russia.'” Today, in the words of Mr. Lukyanov, Moscow is taking a different position: “We are not really sure that we need or want what America is offering to us… Before, we convinced them that we were not worse. Now we don't think it necessary to respond at all to their accusations,” concluded the expert.



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