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Rights, The Reset, And The Gathering Storm

Police detain Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov in Moscow on July 31.
Police detain Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov in Moscow on July 31.
The United States came out this week with its harshest public criticism of Russia since President Barack Obama reset relations with Moscow.

In response to riot police violently breaking up an rally by the opposition "Strategy 31" movement over the weekend on Moscow's Triumfalnaya Ploshchad, the White House's National Security Council issued the following statement:

The United States is concerned by the detention on July 31 of Russian citizens who were participating in rallies throughout Russia to demonstrate their support for Article 31 of the Russian Constitution, which guarantees to Russian citizens the right of assembly.

The United States reiterates the importance of embracing and protecting universal values, including freedoms of expression and assembly, enshrined in the Russian Constitution as well as in international agreements which Russia has signed. Freedom of assembly and freedom of expression are also characteristics of a modern political system that supports economic modernization. The infringement of Russian citizens' rights to exercise these freedoms runs counter to our shared commitments to international norms and common interests in fostering modernization.

The United States remains committed to supporting those in Russia and around the world who are working to protect and advance the human rights and democratic values of their fellow citizens.

And the response from the Kremlin? [Insert crickets chirping]

And the silence was no accident, as the daily "Kommersant" reported citing unidentified Kremlin and Foreign Ministry officials:

In previous years, Moscow's response to the U.S. criticism was always consistent and harsh. Yesterday, however, Russian authorities chose not to comment on the NSC statement. Moreover, according to a high-ranking official in the Dmitry Medvedev administration, a response from the Kremlin should not to be expected. Russia's Foreign Affairs Ministry decided to do the same. Kommersant's Foreign Ministry source said 'the NSC's statement is an intrusion into Russia's internal affairs, however there has not been an official response to this commentary, and most likely there will not be one.'

That the White House eventually came out and criticized Moscow in public came as no surprise. Obama's chief Russia advisor Michael McFaul has argued consistently -- both before and during his White House tenure -- that it is much easier for the United States to make headway with Russia on human rights issues when the Kremlin has a stake in a strong bilateral relationship with Washington.

"If you had a more interesting agenda on reducing nuclear weapons, and if you engage the Russians on those kind of classic realist issues, that would actually make it easier to help the Garry Kasparovs of the world," McFaul told me in October 2007, when he was a professor at Stanford University.

The U.S. administration has spent the past 18 months developing a bilateral agenda with Moscow, and now feels confident enough to push the envelope on human rights and democracy. It was just a matter of time.

Russia's muted response -- much like its subdued reaction to the recent spy scandal -- shows that the Kremlin values the gains of the reset enough to not want a nasty spat with Washington to derail the relationship.

The U.S. criticism comes at a time when rights activists are increasingly worried that optimism about the liberalizing noises (and so far they have been mostly just noises) coming from President Dmitry Medvedev may have been premature.

This week, the rapper Noize MC was detained for performing an anti-police song at a concert in Volgograd and Yevgenia Chirikova, the leader of protests to save the Khimki forest from developers was detained for questioning after holding a press conference in Moscow.

Ella Pamfilova, who headed Medvedev's council on human rights and the development of civil society, resigned reportedly due to a conflict with Kremlin ideologist Vladislav Surkov and the youth group Nashi.

The daily "Nezavisimaya gazeta" reports that Pamfilova's resignation is a harbinger of a looming battle between Kremlin conservatives and technocrats who favor liberalizing the political system.

"Proponents of the ideals of stability are preparing to attack liberals and the ever-growing protest activities of citizens. Human rights activists fear that President Dmitry Medvedev is losing his position," the daily wrote.

Pamfilova's resignation came on the heels of the State Duma passing a law that beefs up the powers of the Federal Security Service (FSB) that rankled rights activists.

Do all these things point to a coming crackdown? It's hard to say at this point. The political dynamic in Russia is as fluid as I have seen them it in awhile.

But if Kremlin hardliners are contemplating a crackdown, they are likely to face a public that is increasingly assertive and less intimidated than it has been for much of the past decade.

For an idea of just how assertive, check out this video of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin being confronted by angry citizens who lost their homes in recent fires in Nizhny Novgorod and are -- to say the least -- dissatisfied with the government's response to the ongoing disaster.

The United States appears to have chosen a timely moment to raise its voice about rights. It appears a showdown about the relationship of the Russian government and its citizens is looming on the horizon.

-- Brian Whitmore

About This Blog

The Power Vertical
The Power Vertical

The Power Vertical is a blog written especially for Russia wonks and obsessive Kremlin watchers by Brian Whitmore. It offers Brian's personal take on emerging and developing trends in Russian politics, shining a spotlight on the high-stakes power struggles, machinations, and clashing interests that shape Kremlin policy today. Check out The Power Vertical Facebook page or


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