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The first meeting of the U.S.-Russia Civil Society Working Group, set up to reset relations between the two countries, was held in Washington on January 27. Afterwards, RFE/RL spoke to Michael McFaul, one of the two co-chairs of the group.

This is a guest post from Catherine Fitzpatrick, who blogs about the OSCE. You can follow her on Twitter here.

This is awful stuff, and U.S. human rights groups should definitely not be participating in it, and sealing the bad faith particularly on the part of the Russians, and the compromising on principles on the part of the Americans.

Civil societies should not be organized by presidents and their commissions. If you need a government commission to discuss human rights issues, call it a government commission, and stop trying to muddle the line between the two with a hybrid exercise of this type.

Civic groups should meet separately on their own terms with their own chosen interlocutors (this would not be Surkov) and then meet with officials on either side with very specific agendas to redress grievances. These sorts of bilateral commissions just set up an awful paradigm of moral equivalence which is truly an optical illusion.

Whatever you want to say about America and its ills, whether torture or badly conceived wars abroad or racism, these violations are not equivalent to the far more severe problems in Russia -- starting with the impunity for which the state is responsible when it comes to the investigations of the murders of journalists and other civic figures.

What McFaul has done here is chose the "soft option." Corruption is always a soft option, despite its appearance of delving into the evils of state mismanagement, because what government would not love to appear as if it is doing something about corruption by meeting with a commission abroad in a comfortable setting?

That's no substitute for real transparency and democratic civic participation in Russia. People "talked about the way they understood how they interact with NGOs to fight corruption." Um, ok. Did they then fight the corruption? Where?

Transparency International (TI) showing up for a meeting like this might seem as if it is "effective" but it's not the same as action and in that sense it is very duplicitous. Every international NGO taking part in this sordid exercise is part of reinforcing the bad faith, and the creating of appearances and not authentic action, and should be reviewing their involvement.

A meeting that reviews what TI says about Russia is pointless, because you can read it on the Internet. If there are no authentic Russian counterparts to TI at the meeting, and it isn't in Russia between the Russian government and the groups seeking transparency there at far greater risk, what is the point?

If you want bad stereotypes about Russia to go away, you can't cure it by commissions and sociological studies. The bad stereotypes will go away when Russia stops doing bad things to its own people. Read the other pages of RFE/RL just for the recent events -- breaking up a peaceful demonstration that is about oppressive changes to the constitution, for example. Perceptions about countries change when they really change internally and change their actions abroad. Hasn't the Obama administration itself banked on this truth?

McFaul is totally disingenuous himself by claiming that there are so many other ways for both government and civic groups to express disagreement and concern, that this "one channel" should be seen as only one of many mechanisms. But this particular channel of a high-level, much propagandized bilateral commission is of course going to get all the air-time and market-share of opinion.

Given the Obama administration's option to follow quiet diplomacy rather than public diplomatic interventions on human rights, the burden for more critical -- and transparent -- participation in this commission seems greater. But if it is going to be "managed democracy" on the part of both Surkov and McFaul, U.S. and international NGOs should stay out of this and form their own parallel commission with authentic representatives of Russia's civil society.

Sorry, but invoking universal human rights, and standing up in solidarity with people like Ludmila Alexeyeva is not "reading a lecture." If it feels that way to the Russian government, then they should go back to reading the human rights documents they signed and realize that America isn't the problem here.

We've also got the very telling fact here that 60 members of Congress, elected in the kind of democratic election that Russia cannot guarantee for its own parliament (see OSCE reports), have questioned the role of Surkov as co-chair, as he is indeed one of the masters of the authoritarian course.

More to the point, Surkov is one of the masters of spinning what is actually happening with that authoritarian course, and manipulating foreigners to help seal it by participating in charades like these commissions.

-- Catherine Fitzpatrick

About This Blog

Written by RFE/RL editors and correspondents, Transmission serves up news, comment, and the odd silly dictator story. While our primary concern is with foreign policy, Transmission is also a place for the ideas -- some serious, some irreverent -- that bubble up from our bureaus. The name recognizes RFE/RL's role as a surrogate broadcaster to places without free media. You can write us at

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