BY LUKE HARDING
The London Guardian
The US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, today spoke of a new era of mutual respect in US dealings with Russia, amid claims that the White House had agreed to stop criticising Russia’s human rights record in return for improved relations.
On a visit to Moscow, Clinton said both countries were now engaged in “clear-headed, practical co-operation” over Iran’s nuclear programme, as well as other issues including arms reduction and the war in Afghanistan.
The trip is her first to Russia as secretary of state. It follows Barack Obama’s decision to cancel the planned US missile defence shield in Poland and the Czech Republic. Clinton said Moscow and Washington could work together to combat a possible Iranian attack.
“We are very interested … in making missile defence a common enterprise against increasingly common threats,” she said. Obama had “transformed” US relations with the Kremlin, she noted, declaring that ties once “defined by the shadow of mutually assured destruction” were now based on “mutual respect”.
Russia, however, made clear it remained sceptical of US-led international attempts to impose sanctions on Iran. Clinton indicated that sanctions were not yet inevitable. “We are not at that point yet. This is not a conclusion we have reached,” she said, adding that the US wanted Iran to “work with the international community”.
Speaking after talks with Clinton this morning, Russia’s foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, reaffirmed the Russian view that any sanctions would be counter-productive.
“There are times when they become inevitable when all other political and diplomatic measures have been exhausted. This is obviously not the case with Iran,” he said.
Clinton’s visit comes amid reports that the White House had agreed it would no longer publicly criticise Russia’s democratic failings. According to today’s Kommersant newspaper, the US administration has rejected the critical stance of the Bush administration in favour of a new approach.
Obama’s reported plan to scale back criticism of Russia’s human rights record is likely to dismay international rights groups and Russia’s opposition. His predecessors Bill Clinton and George Bush regularly criticised the Kremlin for its war in Chechnya and the rollback of democracy under the former president Vladimir Putin.
The move follows a meeting last night between Michael McFaul, Obama’s special adviser on Russia, and the Kremlin’s powerful first deputy chief of staff Vladislav Surkov. The two met as part of a new US-Russia commission on civil society set up after Obama’s visit to Moscow in July and in the wake of his pledge to reset relations with Russia.
The Bush administration frequently complained about rights abuses in Russia, a source of irritation to the Kremlin. According to Kommersant, McFaul indicated that the Obama White House would no longer lecture Russia’s leadership or question its “sovereign” version of democracy. It would restrict dialogue with Russia on human rights to intergovernmental forums, the paper said.
Today, Lavrov said both sides had made “significant progress” on negotiations on a new strategic arms limitation treaty to replace Start-1, which expires on 5 December. Clinton expressed optimism that a deal could be reached by the end of the year.
“President Obama and I believe that it is this co-operative relationship and acceptance of shared responsibility that is the core of the 21st-century relationship between the US and Russia,” she said. “It feels very good to be resetting relations.”
Analysts said the missile defence decision had contributed to a thawing in the mood between Moscow and Washington, but there were doubts whether the new spirit of co-operation would carry on indefinitely’ – and whether Russia would back sanctions on Iran.
“I think they [Putin and Medvedev] … really believe Obama wants improved relations,” said Fyodor Lukyanov, editor-in-chief of Russia in Global Affairs. “After Obama’s move on missile defence, Russia’s leadership felt obliged to respond. This change of sentiment wasn’t because Russia suddenly realised there was an [Iranian] threat.
“I’m not sure it will work indefinitely. So far we have exchanged non-existing US installations in eastern Europe for not really existing Russian influence over Iran.” Russia might be prepared to back “symbolic” sanctions against Tehran but wasn’t likely to halt its military co-operation with Iran’s leadership, he said.
Today’s apparent climbdown on human rights suggests that Obama has pragmatically retreated from the aggressive democracy promotion of the Bush era. The White House is apparently prepared to compromise on the issue to secure Russia’s co-operation over its more pressing strategic concerns: Iran’s nuclear programme and the worsening situation in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Clinton is due to meet Russian human rights activists this afternoon, including two representatives of Memorial, whose colleague Natasha Estemirova was shot dead in June after being abducted from her home in Grozny, Chechnya’s capital. Clinton is later giving a lecture to students from Moscow state university.
Writing in the Moscow Times, the Kremlin critic and former state Duma deputy Vladimir Ryzkhov said the human rights situation in Russia was getting steadily worse. “To the accompaniment of the usual official drivel about democratic values, Russia’s political regime is reaching new heights of authoritarianism,” he said.
“Having already eliminated freedoms in television … elections and the formation of multiple parties, and having established an all-powerful ruling bureaucracy, the Kremlin is now reviving one more important element of the Soviet system – the fight against political dissidents.”
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