Tag: vladimir putin

Boris Nemtsov, RIP

The murder of Boris Nemtsov in the immediate proximity of the Kremlin seems to be an important milestone in Russia’s descent into darkness. As Deputy Prime Minister in the late 1990s and as an opposition politician during the era of Vladimir Putin, Mr. Nemtsov was a voice for a more liberal, open, and democratic Russia.

Notwithstanding a certain degree of restraint in his criticism of the Russian government, his work as one of the central figures of Russian opposition reflected great personal courage. In spite of a history of frequent arrests, in the past year, he positioned himself as an important domestic critic of Russia’s war against Ukraine.

He was not a stranger to free market ideas or to the work of the Cato Institute, which has been trying to support the transition of Soviet Russia to markets since its landmark 1990 Moscow conference, Transition to Freedom: The New Soviet Challenge.  One decade later, Mr. Nemtsov spoke at a Cato conference on the privatization of pension systems around the world.

The circumstances of Mr. Nemtsov’s death are extremely disconcerting, especially in the light of the track record of Mr. Putin’s regime. Mr. Nemtsov was killed two days before the planned demonstration against Mr. Putin’s war against Ukraine. He feared for his life as he was preparing to publish new evidence on the presence of Russian troops in Eastern Ukraine. And the ‘investigation’ of his murder started on Friday night, with the police ransacking his apartment and confiscating his documents and hard drives.

Mr. Putin’s facetious promise that he will “personally oversee the investigation” strongly suggests we will never learn the names of Mr. Nemtsov’s murderers. But it is safe to say that a country in which opposition politicians of Mr. Nemtsov’s stature have to fear for their lives is a on a very dismal path.

Remembering Georgia’s Freedom Fighter

Sometimes a person’s genuine significance can be assessed only after their passing. That seems to be the case of Kakha Bendukidze, Georgian entrepreneur, reformer, and philanthropist, who died unexpectedly early last month. While he was very well-known among libertarians in Eastern Europe and the former USSR, the reactions of some of the world’s leading media outlets suggest that his influence extended far beyond narrow ideological lines, making him one of the most important voices on public policy in the region.

Kakha was a close intellectual ally of Cato and did more than his fair share to promote free-market ideas in countries of the former USSR. In the early 2000s, he pressed for the adoption of a flat tax in Russia. Earlier than others, he understood Vladimir Putin’s true motives, sold his Russian businesses and moved to his native Georgia. It was there that he spearheaded, as Minister for Economy, the ambitious program of fighting corruption and liberalizing the economy, which led to extraordinarily high growth rates for Georgia’s economy. In 2007 alone, the economy expanded by 12.3 percent. After leaving public office, Kakha helped establish the Free University of Tbilisi, a private university offering Western-style undergraduate and graduate education, and the Knowledge Fund, a charity providing funding for teaching and research, including scholarships for Georgian students from poorer backgrounds.

Impressive as this account is, few would have guessed that his passing would prompt a wave of tributes and appreciations coming from sometimes unexpected places. On Foreign Policy’s Democracy Lab, Anna Nemtsova called Kakha one of Georgia’s “most progressive reformers and corruption fighters.” The New York Times published a lengthy obituary, which highlighted Kakha’s involvement with the new leadership of Ukraine. The Independent, in turn, called Kakha a “businessman and statesman who fell foul of Vladimir Putin but rescued Georgia’s post-Soviet economy.”

Finally, the New Yorker magazine offers a carefully written appreciation, offering a lot of details on Kakha’s life and activities in Ukraine prior to his untimely death, as well as the directness with which he communicated his ideas:

Even though he was unsure whether Ukrainians would accept the changes that he wanted to carry out, he agreed to work with [Ukrainian President] Poroshenko, friends say, because he saw Ukraine as the frontline of the battle for liberal reforms in the former Soviet states. With the same tough love that he had inflicted on Georgians, Bendukidze urged Ukrainians to stop blaming others for their problems. “You have broken every world record in idiocy,” he told an audience at the Kyiv School of Economics, in July. “You keep electing populists, people who promise you more. This means you are electing the worst.” He advocated cutting government spending, reducing retirement benefits for public servants, and radically deregulating the economy. Ukraine, he said, in one of his last interviews, had too many ministries and agencies. “Who needs them when the government’s sole function these days is to take money from the International Monetary Fund and pass it on in payment for Russian gas?” he asked.

Romney and Russia: Complicating American Relationships

Mitt Romney has become the inevitable Republican presidential candidate.  He’s hoping to paint Barack Obama as weak, but his attempt at a flanking maneuver on the right may complicate America’s relationship with Eastern Europe and beyond.

Romney recently charged Russia with being America’s “number one geopolitical foe.”  As Jacob Heilbrunn of National Interest pointed out, this claim embodies a monumental self-contradiction, attempting to claim “credit for the collapse of the Soviet Union, on the one hand [while] predicting dire threats from Russia on the other.”  Thankfully, the U.S.S.R. really is gone, and neither all the king’s men nor Vladimir Putin can put it back together.

It is important to separate behavior which is grating, even offensive, and that which is threatening.  Putin is no friend of liberty, but his unwillingness to march lock-step with Washington does not mean that he wants conflict with America. Gordon Hahn of CSIS observes:

Yet despite NATO expansion, U.S. missile defense, Jackson-Vanik and much else, Moscow has refused to become a U.S. foe, cooperating with the West on a host of issues from North Korea to the war against jihadism.  Most recently, Moscow agreed to the establishment of a NATO base in Ulyanovsk.

These are hardly the actions of America’s “number one geopolitical foe.” Romney’s charge is both silly and foolish.

This doesn’t mean the U.S. should not confront Moscow when important differences arise.  But treating Russia as an adversary risks encouraging it to act like one.

Moreover, treating Moscow like a foe will make Russia more suspicious of America’s relationships with former members of the Warsaw Pact and republics of the Soviet Union—and especially Washington’s determination to continue expanding NATO.  After all, if another country ostentatiously called the U.S. its chief geopolitical threat, ringed America with bases, and established military relationships with areas that had broken away from the U.S., Washington would not react well.  It might react, well, a lot like Moscow has been reacting.

Although it has established better relations with the West, Russia still might not get along with some of its neighbors, most notably Georgia, with its irresponsibly confrontational president.  However, Washington should not give Moscow additional reasons to indulge its paranoia.

Cross-posted from the Skeptics at the National Interest.