For the past few months, the official Russian media have shown little warmth for the Bush administration. Taking their cue from the Kremlin, the Russian press has been happy to denounce Washington when it criticized, even very cautiously, authoritarian actions. But Washington's own cold shoulder turned into a warm embrace this week when Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice openly endorsed President Vladimir Putin's anointed successor, Dmitry Medvedev, and effectively undercut her past statements urging Russia to adopt a more democratic course and to hold truly competitive elections.
Rice commended Medvedev, Russia's first deputy prime minister, as a "very intelligent person" and a politician "of another generation." For Putin and the Russian siloviki (secret police operatives) who have consolidated power and are maneuvering to ensure that the regime retains control via an undemocratic succession, Rice's remarks could not have been better timed. Medvedev has not begun campaigning. In fact, Medvedev is not even an official candidate in the March presidential election -- he has yet to give his nomination papers to the Central Electoral Commission.
So what prompted Rice to preempt the judgment of the Russian people? Why such a rush to endorse Putin's man? Rice may well have formed a positive impression of Medvedev in recent years, but why express it now, right after Putin's announcement? Other public praise has come from such esteemed men as the Chechen thug-dictator Ramzan Kadyrov. Why is the U.S. secretary of state joining his company?
Rice's endorsement is all the more breathtaking considering it comes in the wake of a parliamentary election that was full of heavy-handed intimidation tactics and that European human rights observers called the dirtiest election yet in the post-Soviet period. "The State Duma election in the Russian Federation on the 2nd December 2007 was not fair and failed to meet many [Organization for Security and Cooperation] and Council of Europe commitments and standards for democratic elections," the joint observer mission declared after the polls closed.
Yes, Rice has said she hopes the time will come when Russia will have "a presidential election where there is a realistic chance for a really contested election." But praising the Kremlin's candidate won't help bring such an election to fruition. And if she saw an appropriate occasion to express concern about the state of Russian democracy, why not talk about all candidates for the presidency?
Why not support instead a democratic presidential hopeful, such as the Other Russia coalition leader Garry Kasparov? Kasparov was recently jailed because he participated in a peaceful demonstration for democracy. Putin's government has blocked Kasparov from running for president next year and opposition Web sites have been attacked, yet Rice complements Medvedev and cites his work "to wire the country with Internet." Is Kasparov, the reigning world chess champion for 15 years, not intelligent enough for Rice?
Why didn't Rice mention Vladimir Ryzhkov, another democratic politician? This week, Ryzhkov, one of democracy's most outspoken defenders, was thrown out of the Duma, where he had served four consecutive terms, when his Republican party, one of the oldest in Russia, was closed down by Medvedev's colleagues. I do not recall Medvedev arguing or acting, either in his current office or as head of the presidential administration, in defense of the rights of Ryzhkov, Kasparov or their organizations to participate in a "really contested election" -- whether parliamentary or presidential.
But Rice is dead silent about democratic candidates. It is striking that while American officials advocate democracy and call for competitive elections, their practical actions pull in the opposite direction. Rice's reassurances lend comfort not to those fighting for democracy but to those who would destroy it, not to victims of persecution in Russia but to their persecutors.
This duplicitous game has real consequences. Rice's endorsement of Medvedev is interpreted in the Kremlin as carte blanche for an undemocratic succession.
What Rice and German Chancellor Angela Merkel -- who has indicated that she "could work well with" Medvedev -- are expressing is their acceptance of the underhanded political tactics of the siloviki regime. Having issued their endorsements ahead of the election, they are saying publicly that for them, Putin's wishes count for much more than all the people's ballots.
The March presidential election is being buried -- by ex-Soviet secret police operatives and by Western leaders who have already accepted an illegitimate heir to the Russian throne.