Russian-American relations and the Democrats in Congress

The Democrat victory in the US mid-term elections drew a stormy response in Russia. Mark Medish, a vice president at the Carnegie Endowment in Washington, formerly a special advisor on Russian and CIS affairs in the Clinton administration, discusses the future of Russian-American relations.

The Democrat victory in the US mid-term elections drew a stormy response in Russia. All the leading politicians and analysts agreed that a Democrat-controlled Congress would start raising inconvenient questions for President Vladimir Putin and would monitor the Bush administration’s policy on Russia more closely. Mark Medish, a vice president at the Carnegie Endowment in Washington, formerly a special advisor on Russian and CIS affairs in the Clinton administration, discusses the future of Russian-American relations.

Question: How justified are apprehensions that the new Democrat-controlled Congress will take a more hostile policy stance on Russia?

Mark Medish: I don’t think that the outcome of the mid-term elections will necessarily lead to increased confrontation with Moscow. Both the Democratic and Republican parties have some members of Congress and senators who want Russia expelled from the G8 and not permitted to join the WTO. But there are also proponents of a moderate approach to Russia. Individuals may play a role in this, of course. In the House of Representatives, the Russia expert will be Tom Lantos, a tireless critic of Putin. In the Senate, the new chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee is Joe Biden, who has also criticized Russia repeatedly. And perhaps the degree of debates on Russia will rise.

Question: Moscow considers that the Republicans have a more predictable approach to Russia, whereas we don’t know what to expect from the Democrats.

Mark Medish: I disagree with that evaluation. Over the past decade, Republican neo-conservatives have been considerably more active in interfering in the affairs of other countries than Democrat leaders would have wanted.

Question: But as the presidential election approaches, the Democrat-controlled Congress is sure to raise the usual question: “Who lost Russia?” And they’ll blame George W. Bush, of course.

Mark Medish: A Republican-controlled Congress would do the same for a Democrat president. When the question of admitting Russia into the WTO comes up on the Congress agenda, all lawmakers, regarless of which party they represent, will be strongly tempted to tie trade issues to Russia’s development as a democracy. We saw the same thing happen in 2000 when China was admitted into the WTO. All the same, China did become a WTO member.

Question: Do you think Congress will support Russia’s membership application as well?

Mark Medish: Bush has promised Putin that America will support Russia’s accession to the WTO and repeal the Jackson-Vanik amendment. We shouldn’t underestimate the power of the White House. Despite the problems with Iraq, Bush still has vast resources at his disposal. And if he decides to use all his political capital in Congress to support Russia’s WTO accession, he will achieve that goal.

Question: How do you think American-Russian relations will develop if a Democrat wins the presidential election in 2008?

Mark Medish: No one can predict that at this stage. Everything will be decided by developments in Russia and the United States.

Question: Bush’s policy on Russia has had many ups and downs.

Mark Medish: Oh yes. At first, the Bush administration disregarded Russia entirely. Then the presidents met in Ljubljana, and the meeting was more positive than expected. But the White House’s strategic thinking was changed by September 11, of course. Putin’s well-known condolence call to Bush prepared the ground for an entirely new relationship. Many in Washington were caught unprepared by this astonishing metamorphosis. On September 9, our relations with Russia were chilly. By September 12, we were “strategic partners.” And this was followed by another chill – during the Orange Revolution in Ukraine, escalating rivalry across the CIS, the battle for Central Asia, and increasing concerns that Russia was turning aside from the path of democracy. Then there was a thaw, due to the need to cooperate on the Iran crisis.

Question: But what kind of administration would Russia find it easier to deal with after 2008 – Democrat or Republican?

Mark Medish: If Republican John McCain wins the election, the United States would have a president who has expressed his “personal” deep concern about Russia’s slide into authoritarianism. McCain has criticized Moscow far more harshly than any potential Democrat candiate. I get the impression that Russia would find it far more difficult to deal with the Republicans if they win the election in 2008.

Question: More and more often, the West is accusing Russia of using its energy resources as a tool for putting pressure on neighboring countries.

Mark Medish: In both the United States and Europe, Russia is increasingly perceived as an aggressor within the former Soviet Union. Unpleasant emotions were generated by last year’s gas conflict between Moscow and Kiev, and the current dispute with Minsk. There was just as much disappointment when Russia announced the terms on which Western corporations will be allowed to participate in the Sakhalin and Shtokman projects. The greatest danger is that both Russia and the United States have some influential political groups that don’t see poor bilateral relations as a problem – on the contrary, they believe this helps uphold the national interests of the United States or Russia. This trend has the potential to develop into a truly dangerous situation for both countries.

Question: The Kremlin isn’t concealing its annoyance at the US administration’s policy on Georgia. Wouldn’t it make more sense for America’s future leaders to back some more moderate Georgian politicians than the present government in Tbilisi?

Mark Medish: Any American administration strives to work with elected government bodies in other states. Saakashvili was elected in a democratic election. I believe that the American approach to Georgia has been justified, and the results are plain to see. I’m absolutely convinced that no American party is seeking to back a potential successor to Saakashvili, the elected president of Georgia.

Question: Moscow expects that the White House might influence Saakhasvili, make him more tolerant, force him to abandon plans for an annexation of South Ossetia or a military expedition against Abkhazia.

Mark Medish: Of course, the United States has an interest in seeing that Russia and Georgia avoid a military conflict. We wouldn’t gain anything from that – on the contrary, we could lose a great deal.