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Interview: McFaul On U.S., Russian Stereotypes And His Controversial Co-Chair

Vladislav Surkov (left) with Russia President Dmitry Medvedev
Vladislav Surkov (left) with Russia President Dmitry Medvedev
The first meeting of the U.S.-Russia Bilateral Presidential Commission’s Civil Society Working Group was held in Washington on January 27. The group is part of a larger effort begun last summer by U.S. President Barack Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev to reset relations between the two countries and explore new opportunities for partnership. The two co-chairs of the group are Michael McFaul, special assistant to Obama and senior director for Russian affairs at the National Security Council, and Vladislav Surkov, first deputy chairman of the Russian presidential administration.

RFE/RL correspondent Heather Maher spoke to McFaul just after the meeting ended and asked him about the day’s progress and the controversy in Congress over his Russian co-chair.

RFE/RL: This first meeting of the Civil Society Working Group dealt with the subject of civil society's role in helping end state corruption. Did the two sides reach any agreement on the role that civil society groups can and should play, and were there any disagreements?

Michael McFaul:
We talked first in a government-to-government setting in the morning on that subject, and we had U.S. officials talking about the role that American NGOs have played in fighting corruption and actually changing the U.S. government structure going back 30 or 40 years. We had one example of that, where the office of government ethics was created as a result of NGO lobbying. And then the Russian side did a similar thing where the government people talked about the way they understood how they interact with NGOs to fight corruption. And in the afternoon we kind of flipped the tables by inviting in Russian and American representatives and leaders of NGOs that work in this field to talk about their perspective of what the government does and does not do.

So I say -- by way of background -- that it was an exchange of historical and contemporary experiences from both countries. That was the main subject.

In terms of agreement, I would say there was more agreement than disagreement, right? The role that the press plays, for instance, in fighting corruption was an issue that a Russian representative from the NGO community raised at our afternoon session. And the Russian delegation agreed with that. So, subconceptually, there was a lot more agreement than disagreement.

Michael McFaul
RFE/RL: I heard that the agenda also included a discussion of prisoners’ rights. Did that come up?

McFaul:
No, the substance today was corruption, fighting corruption, protecting children, and then a session on fighting stereotypes in our respective countries. For the next session that we will have sometime in the spring in Russia, the subject will be prison reform and migration. So those two topics we didn’t get to today.
 
RFE/RL: Were representatives from the global anticorruption group Transparency International (TI) at today’s meeting?

McFaul:
They were. Both the American representative from Transparency International -- in fact, I think one of the founders, if not the founder -- and the head of the Transparency International office in Russia were also here.

RFE/RL: TI has rated Russia the most corrupt of the world’s 20 leading industrialized nations. Did their representatives voice any criticism or skepticism about Russia’s commitment to fighting corruption?

McFaul:
Uh, yeah. (Laughs). I mean, I don’t want to read out the tit-tat of the meeting because I would want you to talk to them and have them read it out to you, and I encourage you, please do so. But I would say we had a very frank and honest discussion about what Transparency International does around the world that I think was informative to our Russian government counterparts. And to me too, by the way. It was informative to me. I didn’t know the whole history.

And you know, a discussion about methodology and how one comes up with these numbers, I thought, was all very useful in terms of people just learning -- as one official said, without naming names, "We don’t just have stereotypes about what Americans and Russian do and don’t do in the world. We also have stereotypes about what groups like Transparency International do." And I think we helped to undermine some of those stereotypes today in our discussions. 

RFE/RL: I'd like to ask what you discussed about stereotypes, but first I want to ask you about an interview that your co-chair and counterpart Vladislav Surkov gave to the Russian newspaper "Izvestia" last week, in which he said that at this meeting the two sides “will not lecture each other.” Was it the case that you didn’t lecture each other?

McFaul:
From my perspective, it was the case. That is, we think of this particular modality of interaction between Russians and Americans as an exchange of information on how we deal with these problems respectively in our countries, and then [the idea is] to create a forum for Russian and American NGOs to meet with each other. And I think it’s important to note that they met, while we were meeting in our government-to-government meeting, they, in parallel, were also meeting with each other, without the government in the room. And then we want to bring them all together so that we can have this exchange.

I think it’s important for your listeners to understand -- you know, there are many other mechanisms, means, presidential statements, meetings of our presidents, where we can express our disagreement and our concern about human rights issues, corruption issues, the whole list of issues we have, and we do that rather militantly, I would say, in the Obama administration. I think it’s wrong to think that this is our only way that we can engage on fostering the development of civil society and democracy in Russia. I personally don’t see it that way at all. I see it as one of many mechanisms.

RFE/RL: As I’m sure you’re aware, more than 60 members of Congress sent a letter to President Obama in December protesting the appointment of Mr. Surkov as the group’s co-chair. The legislators called him “one of the masterminds behind Russia’s authoritarian course” and urged Obama to boycott these meetings until he was replaced. Did that controversy come up either in today’s meeting or in the run-up to it? And also, do you think the letter cast a pall over the group’s ability to work productively?

McFaul:
It didn’t come up as an issue for discussion. Of course, I’m well aware of the controversy. And I guess my reaction to it is, let’s be clear -- this was an initiative by the United States government to try to create this working group. It was my initiative, I’ll tell you very honestly. It was my idea. And we were happy that the Russians agreed to have this as part of the bilateral presidential commission.

That said, it’s not for us to choose who the Russians decide should be the co-chairs of any of these working groups. I can’t even quite understand how one would do that. I know the controversy around Mr. Surkov, and I’ll leave that for others to comment on. Maybe there was a time in American history when we were that powerful and we could tell other countries what to do all the time and who to name to bi-national commissions, but we are certainly not trying to do that in our relationship with Russia today.

RFE/RL: Let’s talk about the anti-American stereotypes the Russians presented and the anti-Russian stereotypes the American side offered. What was that discussion like?

McFaul:
Well, I would say it’s just the beginning of what needs to be a much longer discussion and one we both agreed needs to be based on more analysis and not just anecdotes and theories based on personal experiences or based on [a] one-off thing that happened to me, or you, at some point in the past. I mean, I think it’s a real, serious problem that needs to be addressed.

This was an issue that we wanted to discuss – the American side. But we came away thinking, "We need to look at this much more closely." And to be frank, I think it’s more of an issue that we want to have real social scientists tackle in perhaps a joint commission. You know, we really wrestle with the public opinion poll data, and cause and effect. As a former social scientist – I’m a professor at Stanford – to me this is a question that begs for analytic analysis and not necessarily talking points from one government to the other. 

RFE/RL: Finally, how do you feel overall about how this first meeting went? Are you optimistic that it can bring about meaningful cooperation between the United States and Russia on the role of civil society groups?

McFaul:
Yes, I am optimistic. I think, as President Obama said when he was in Moscow, and as he has said repeatedly as part of the way he thinks about foreign policy, he believes in engagement, and he believes even in engagement that leads to disagreement. And most certainly today, some of our engagement with the Russian government led to disagreement. But it’s better to have disagreement, and know that we disagree, and have a frank discussion about our disagreements, than to sit in our cubbyholes and not have any real connectivity with those that we think we’re disagreeing with.

You’ve mentioned that Mr. Surkov has a reputation in the United States. Let’s be frank. I have a reputation in Russia, given what I’ve written and what I’ve said about Mr. Surkov’s bosses, for that matter. So I think for them to actually interact with someone like me is useful, even if at the end we disagree. I think that kind of exchange is useful for breaking down stereotypes and for advancing American national interests, and I hope in the long run, Russian national interests, as well.
This forum has been closed.
Comment Sorting
Comments
     
by: Ray from: Lawrence, KS
January 28, 2010 22:58
Can't help but be a bit cynical, particularly after hearing all the high-blown rhetoric in President Obama's State of the Union speech. While I applaud high-level dialogue, whether in Moscow or Washington, the abyss between words and reality grows ever wider.

by: Catherine Fitzpatrick from: New York City
February 01, 2010 00:20
This is *awful* stuff, and U.S. human rights groups should definitely NOT be participating in it, and sealing the bad faith here 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 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.

by: Mark Yampolsky from: Huntsville, AL
February 01, 2010 21:36
Mr. McFaul said that "I know the controversy around Mr. Surkov, and I’ll leave that for others to comment on.". My comment is the following. Mr. McFaul could easily decline to co-chair this Commission if " it’s not for us to choose who the Russians decide should be the co-chairs of any of these working groups."
I gess his choice was different.

by: Tom Spitters from: San Jose, California
February 05, 2010 13:56
It is difficult to comment on talks like this that appear really to be preliminary to other meetings, not that promise to be more serious in content, but that will take place with the issues above already examined, and this with the thought to move foreign relations between the two countries (really empires to each other) forward. Peope like me know who Mr. McFaul is, and while people like me do not always agree with this liberal approach to international differences that some like to entertain, the attention these talks have received in the international press is conducive to leaders paying more attention, and their trying to accomplish something, either by sticking to a public policy agenda and airing it in talks, or getting down a laundry list. To illustrate Dr. McFaul as a kind of facilitator of these talks might not be far from the truth as he knows the Russian Federation / CIS quite well, and our own president is well advised to listen to him without making the professor strictly a policy - maker (he might be that anyway, but his position vis - a - vis this article is one of mediator.) And. Without going into all the details, McFaul allowed and allows the Russians in this case to use an NGO forum to invite discussion on human, civil and political rights - something that the Russians are apparently now committed to and that they will encourage into the future. All chief executives might have problems with NGO's especially in regimes that are restrictive, and obversely, liberals in the 20th century (of which the legacy remains) have used NGO's and thier scripts and agendas to attack ideas and principles more frequently respected in the western world - this was for some time probably the intention behind NGO's in Russia for a while. So, the international coverage of these talks, while comments and interpretations are along a spectrum from dissatisfaction and anger to extreme relief, probably are correct in their assessment that the O'Bama administration is interested in the Russians and addressing some fundamental issues, maybe including introducing some more western - style ideas about human rights and ordinary civic rights, and the like, their Russian counterparts can work on adopting or at least discussing within their own offices. People like me do see the American side of these meetings, and know the Russian people interpret psychologically sometimes what westerners introduce technically - if there is / was any disagreements in these meetings, whether they were / are behind closed doors or not, might be attributed to this, and enought with biased comments, already. These simply indicate jaded and other attitudinal references and difficulties.

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