Democracy Lab

Below the Radar

Worried about how Edward Snowden will affect President Obama's visit to Russia next month? Moscow isn't.

MOSCOW — Shortly before Edward Snowden landed in Moscow, two officials from the United States and Russia took a tour around the Northern Caucasus city of Sochi, the site of the 2014 Winter Olympics games. Gil Kerlikowske, President Obama's "czar" for the war on drugs, and Viktor Ivanov, his Russian counterpart, spared no effort in demonstrating their mutual affinity. The program for their trip included a traditional greeting ceremony with Russian beauties serving bread and salt, a visit to a successful rehab center for drug addicts, cruising around the Black Sea in a yacht, and ample portions of red caviar, freshly caught fish, and good wine.

Following the symbolic March 2009 U.S.-Russia reset, Kerlikowske and  Ivanov met dozens of times in all parts of the globe in collaboration on a counternarcotics working group. With their shared passion for fighting the global war on drugs, Kerlikowske and Ivanov operate in a style that stands in sharp contrast to most of the other bilateral projects initiated by their two governments -- and that's not just because they're known to make each other coffee.

Of the 16 working groups created by the Obama and Medvedev administrations, they are one of the few that actually work. The rest are stuck in the pre-reset era. And now, with only a month left before President Obama's visit to Russia for the G-20 summit, people are wondering about Moscow's agenda for its relationship with Washington.

A pro-Kremlin analyst of geopolitical processes, Yuri Krupnov, says that, at a moment when most of Russia's industry is in decline (with the exception of oil and gas), it would be "pathetic" for Russia to be aggressive in making a show of will and power. Soft power, he stressed, is very valuable, but should only be applied if there is hard power to back it up. "Putin is thinking hard of what [mutual] points of interest Russia should have on its agenda with United States, but at the moment the relations are all about mockery -- they mock us with [the] Magnitsky Act and we use Snowden to demonstrate that we also respect human rights."

Even if Obama's visit takes place as scheduled, it's questionable why the countries are even bothering when diplomacy has clearly taken a backseat. The Kremlin gave a firm "net" to extraditing American whistleblower Snowden following Obama's recent proposal to make major reductions in nuclear stockpiles and Washington's sharply articulated concerns about human rights issues in Russia.

In fact, nobody in the Kremlin seems to be seriously worried about inciting America's wrath over Snowden. The daily tweets from Aleksei Pushkov, the head of the Duma foreign affairs committee, offer a good example of what Krupnov refers to as "mockery": "If the U.S. places trade sanctions on Russia because of Snowden, they will be shooting themselves in the foot!"

But he's not alone. Government officials and the Russian media routinely accuse Washington of "hypocrisy," "double standards," and treating Russia poorly -- especially when it comes to extradition requests. Channel One Russia conscientiously reminded the country that the U.S. State Department granted political asylum to the most wanted Russian terrorist, Ilyas Akhmadov. And Komsomolskaya Pravda, a daily tabloid, pointed out that American authorities have ignored all of Russia's requests for the extradition of kidnaper Tamaz Nalbandov. "We can currently see a campaign in the Russian media that interprets the Kremlin's intentions [to keep] Snowden in Moscow," says pro-Kremlin analyst Sergei Markov.

In the weeks following the crackdown on Russian NGOs last autumn, U.S. diplomats grumbled that the country was losing hope for a better future with Moscow. With a clear sense of resignation, their message comes across as little more than the following: "Do you like locking up your critics in jail, condemning them as spies or foreign agents? Okay, go ahead and live  your third world life. We're giving up on you."

At this point, Russian officials admit that even proposed U.S. assistance for modernizing Russian industry, a project launched by former president Dmitry Medvedev, has disappeared from President Putin's immediate agenda -- together with all of Medvedev's other pro-partnership plans.

It's true that Afghanistan is still important both for the United States and Russia today, but that will change in less than a year. Igor Bunin, the president of the Mocow think-tank Center for Political Technologies described the basic picture to me: "America is not on the list of Putin's priorities today; his priority [and] agenda is all about how to stay in power in 2018, and here America is acting as his enemy." 

While politicians wonder what the two countries should do about their diplomatic relations, conservative Russian intellectuals, like award-winning novelist Zakhar Prilepin, believe that the Snowden factor gives Russia an opportunity to win the argument over values. Just on Friday, the Kremlin forced senior Obama administration officials to offer assurances on human rights, a rare occurrence -- including a promise not to torture or execute a prisoner. Prilepin believes there may be more to this than just another show of mockery. "The Kremlin is all about materialistic values. But Snowden actually gives us a chance to perform as a proud and strong country and genuinely help one man."

JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images

Democracy Lab

The Crusader Is a Convict

Russia’s leading oppositionist has been sentenced to five years in jail. Can the protest movement go on?

MOSCOW — Russian opposition activists are furious about today's court decision to send young lawyer Alexey Navalny to a penal colony for five years. Everybody in the opposition agrees that he's a charismatic and popular figure, and many had even hoped to see him become president one day. With Navalny in jail, the anti-Putin opposition finds itself forced to regroup and plan a new strategy. Fewer than two hours after the handcuffed Navalny was escorted from the courtroom, 10,000 Facebook users confirmed their intentions to demonstrate against his arrest at a non-sanctioned rally on Manezh Square this evening, right by the wall of the Kremlin.

Environmental movement leader Yevgenia Chirikova has marched with Navalny at dozens of street rallies. "This is the end of Putin's stupid power," she says. "The Kremlin has never learned the lessons of history." She compares Navalny to Nelson Mandela and Vaclav Havel. "By throwing such a popular opposition leader behind bars they gave him a bigger rating and lost their own popularity. Most important is not to cry and not to panic now!" Chirikova's relative optimism is characteristic of many members of the opposition. But the majority of Russians seem indifferent. 

Sergei, my taxi driver, turned down the radio when I asked him about the trial. "Oh, I'm not so sure about this Navalny guy. So he stirred up the dirt -- and guess what happened." By "dirt," he was referring to Navalny's slogans condemning Vladimir Putin and the ruling United Russia Party, which Navalny so memorably rechristened as "the party of crooks and thieves." Thousands of protesters chanted Navalny's words on streets and squares all across the country during the big anti-government protests last year. But even as Sergei was sharing his views, the man who was the driving force behind the protest movement stood in the courtroom, listening to his "guilty" verdict. 

I looked at Sergei: a tall, ruddy-cheeked, well-dressed young man with a golden suntan. He was keener to chat about his recent trip to Odessa than to talk about "lousy and "filthy" politics. "Protests can't change anything," he told me -- a view common to the overwhelming majority of Russians. "Everybody steals, we all give bribes, and Navalny is no angel."

The authorities have arrested a string of dissidents this year, disillusioning many of Sergei's counterparts. A recent survey [in Russian] by the Levada Center, the respected pollster, showed that 81 percent of respondents have no intention of participating any in protests. Only 11 percent still had the courage to come out against the authorities despite a high risk of getting clubbed or detained. 

Navalny's popularity has soared over the course of the past year. "I want to change the way the country is run," he declared in an interview not long before the trial. "I want to make it so 140 million people live normally, in a European country." He also took the occasion to reveal his presidential ambitions, and, as always, many took him at his word. In the past, it's been enough for Navalny to post a single tweet in order for thousands to answer his call. 

On the night of Vladimir Putin's inauguration, Navalny suggested that Muscovites should "take a walk" against Putin in downtown Moscow. Hundreds complied. 

The walks eventually turned into a long-term Occupy movement, a camp for the opposition to share ideas, read poetry, sing, and even perform plays. Many other "walks" followed; Navalny's charisma appealed to hundreds of thousands. His approval rating rose from 6 percent in 2011 to 37 percent in March 2013, much to the chagrin of those he called "crooks." 

Young volunteers are recreating his strategy. Until recently, their leader Navalny was the second-most popular candidate in Moscow's mayoral race. Now he's a convict. That means they have to figure out how to organize support for the prisoner. "I'm trying not to think, not to lose my motivation," 20-year old Galina Koposova said. She fainted when she heard Navalny's verdict, but was on her feet again just an hour later. Like her hero, she's not the type to give up just because she's been knocked off her balance.

(Note: Navalny has now been freed on bail pending appeal -- something that doesn't happen in Russia very often. Some are speculating that the protests by his supporters may have had something to do with it.)

VASILY MAXIMOV/AFP/Getty Images