During their visit to Moscow this week, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates held meetings with President Vladimir Putin and president-elect Dmitry Medvedev. They also met with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov to discuss such issues as U.S. plans to deploy elements of a missile defense system in Eastern Europe. In addition, Rice and Gates met with members of Russia’s liberal intelligentsia, including several leading democratic critics of the Putin administration, during a March 18 breakfast at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow. Guests included Yabloko leader Grigory Yavlinsky; former State Duma Deputy Vladimir Ryzhkov; Vladimir Milov, a former deputy energy minister who now heads the Institute for Energy Policy; Carnegie Moscow Center deputy head Dmitry Trenin; Olga Dergunova, VTB board member and former head of Microsoft Russia; and Newsweek Russia columnist Mikhail Fishman.
As both Russian and Western media noted, the breakfast did not include leading members of Russia’s political opposition, such as former prime minister Mikhail Kasyanov, who heads the Popular Democratic Union; former world chess champion Garry Kasparov, who heads the “Other Russia” opposition coalition; or Union of Right Forces leader Nikita Belykh (Reuters, RBC.ru, March 18). Indeed, an anonymous U.S. Embassy official was quoted as saying that the breakfast was not a meeting with the opposition but rather with “civil society leaders” (Moscow Times, March 19).
And while Rice, asked whether she expected the Kremlin to be angered by her meetings with civil society leaders and NGOs, answered, “I think it is expected,” the Sobkor@ru news agency reported that the U.S. embassy’s press service had told it that the list of those invited to the embassy breakfast was drawn up by Russia’s Foreign Ministry. According to Sobkor@ru, Russia’s Foreign Ministry confirmed that it had drawn up the list of invitees (Kasparov.ru, March 18). Reuters reported that a U.S. Embassy spokeswoman declined to comment on why outspoken human rights leaders and political figures had not met Rice. “There is no comment on this meeting at all,” the spokeswoman told the news agency (Reuters, March 18).
Several of those who attended the breakfast meeting have been harshly critical of the Putin administration. Indeed, Milov and former Union of Right Forces leader Boris Nemtsov co-authored an analysis of Putin’s tenure published earlier this year that concluded, among other things, that an “authoritarian-criminal regime” has developed in Russia over the last eight years (see EDM, February 11). Ryzhkov has also been harshly critical of the Kremlin. Speaking of the embassy meeting with Rice, Ryzhkov told Ekho Moskvy radio: “I talked about how I see a direct link between the fact that Russia has become an authoritarian state and that the Russian people are incurring big costs, in particular the growth in corruption. I talked about [Yabloko’s St. Petersburg branch leader] Maksim Reznik, who is currently sitting in jail; about dozens of murdered journalists, including Anna Politkovskaya, none of whose cases has been solved; I spoke about censorship in the mass media” (Expert.ru, March 18).
Still, some opposition-minded observers criticized Rice’s meeting with the Russian civil society representatives who, in their view, went out of their way to avoid offending the Kremlin. “A serious confrontation between the leaders of Russia and America is hardly possible,” wrote Yuri Gladysh. “We are too much interested in Western technology and financial resources, and they, it seems, are firmly attached to the Russian hydrocarbon needle. Our interest in one another is so obvious that the American guests today were allowed previously unheard of liberties. Hardly under any other circumstances would she [Rice] have asked her interlocutors: ‘What can the United States do to make the Russian political system more open?’ If there was a real confrontation, that statement would have been immediately assessed as interference in our internal affairs. However, on this occasion, our official organs have so far significantly kept silent.” Gladysh also noted that one of those who attended the meeting, Yabloko leader Grigory Yavlinsky, recently had a closed-door, one-on-one meeting with Putin in the Kremlin (Kasparov.ru, March 18). Indeed, Yavlinsky has come under criticism from members of his own party for that meeting.
In a commentary for the Ezhednevny Zhurnal website, Aleksandr Golts wrote that those Russian civil society members who met with Rice “could in no way make the Kremlin angry” while those who were notably absent – Kasparov, Kasyanov, and Belykh – had called last December’s State Duma election and the presidential election earlier this month “a farce.” Thus, according to Golts, that meeting, together with the meetings that Putin, Medvedev, Lavrov, and Serdyukov had with Rice and Gates, represent a “large diplomatic victory” for the Kremlin (Ej.ru, March 19).
Tatyana Lokshina, a Russian researcher with Human Rights Watch who was part of a group of civil society representatives and human rights activists who met with Rice in Moscow last October, said she was disappointed not to be invited to this year’s meeting. “Not only was I not there but I did not know about it, it’s a pity,” Lokshina told Reuters. “I can’t say why she didn’t meet us this time, but frankly it’s very disappointing. It sends a signal to the Russian government” (Reuters, March 18).
At the time of the meeting with Rice last October, Lokshina said that the U.S. secretary of state and other U.S. officials had lost leverage over democracy in Russia because of Iraq and other issues. “Whatever criticism the Russian authorities get is wasted to a large extent since the Russians say the U.S. does not have the right to criticize us because of their own record,” Lokshina told the Washington Post. “American criticism alone, the American voice alone, cannot be effective today.” According to the newspaper, Lokshina said that when she challenged Rice over the U.S. detention facility for terrorism suspects at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, Rice responded: “We never lost the high ground” (Washington Post, October 14, 2007).