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Make Sure Putin Gets the Message

Russia: The West must let the newly elected president know that continued aid is dependent on his human rights agenda.

March 28, 2000|RACHEL DENBER | Rachel Denber is deputy director of the Europe and Central Asia division at Human Rights Watch and the former head of its Moscow office

With the elections behind him, President Vladimir V. Putin can now begin his agenda of restoring a "strong state" to Russia. In recent weeks, U.S. leaders have charitably hailed him as an effective leader who will prevent a rollback to the command economy and Soviet-style rule.

This is an exceptionally myopic view that the U.S., and much of the rest of the world, may come to regret. Putin's Russia may not be Soviet, but it certainly could be malevolent. There is more than one kind of police state.

Putin knows the language of democracy, and has repeatedly pledged to uphold the rule of law. But his commitment is clearly selective. When he took over as prime minister, Putin's job was to reassert Russian control over Chechnya, which, we have learned, he views as his "historic mission." His performance in the armed conflict there demonstrates that he will observe democratic principles only so long as they do not interfere with his special projects.

The Russian army has slaughtered and maimed thousands of civilians in bombing and shelling. Human Rights Watch has been able to document 122 cases of civilians being summarily executed, and there may be many more. Russian forces have looted civilians' homes, arrested thousands of Chechen men and tortured untold numbers of those whom they have detained in special "filtration camps."

Hundreds of thousands of Chechens live in squalid and humiliating conditions in refugee camps. Many either have no home to return to or are too terrified of the brutality of Russian soldiers to return. Russian actions in Chechnya have so deeply alienated Chechens that it is unclear how Russia can ever establish the legitimacy necessary for peaceful rule there.

This is an ominous indication of what the rest of Putin's tough law-and-order agenda for Russia may mean. He is not interested in human rights or due process. He is willing to vilify non-Russian citizens to achieve his goals. A former KGB agent, he reaches readily for the tools of what Russians call "the power ministries"--defense, interior, the intelligence agencies--to solve problems and carry out policy.

And Putin is not swayed, not a bit, by the scolding rhetoric of the West. There's been less of this than Western leaders like to pretend. Beyond some tough rhetoric, the Clinton administration has undertaken no effective action to make the brutal conduct of the war in Chechnya truly costly for Putin. So far, the U.S. has rejected any link between support for the World Bank or International Monetary Fund loan payments in return for improvements in Russian conduct in the conflict. The U.N. Commission for Human Rights, the world's most important forum for promoting human rights, is currently in session, but the U.S. is unlikely to sponsor a resolution there calling for action to stop abuses in Chechnya.

This has left Putin, during his formative months as acting president, feeling confident that his relationship with the U.S. and the West will not suffer, no matter how ruthlessly he goes about pursuing his goals. This is precisely the wrong strategy to take at this important juncture in Russian history.

What did the West fight the Cold War for? Did it spend those many long years tussling over the fate of individual dissidents and penalizing Moscow for the fate of Soviet Jews just to see the Russians commit war crimes against innocent civilians, and look away? The United States must stand now, as it tried to stand then, for the protection of human rights in Russia. This is the basis of good governance and stability in Russia, in China and everywhere else.

Putin, like every Russian leader before him, wants very badly to sit at the table with the major Western powers. But a seat at that table must be earned. Leaders who preside over gross violations of human rights shouldn't get one. The time for making that clear to President Putin is right now.

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