Russian doubts U.S. support for democracy

A key leader of Russia’s democratic opposition said this week that Russians are unsure of President Obama’s position on support for democracy and human rights in Russia.

Boris Nemtsov, former Russian deputy prime minister and founder of Russia’s “Solidarity” movement, also said in a speech this week that Mr. Obama is making a strategic error if he thinks ratifying an arms treaty with Russia would “reset” relations with America’s former Cold War rival.

“Russians do not know what Obama thinks about human rights and democracy,” he told a conference held by the Foreign Policy Initiative.

The criticism from Mr. Nemtsov highlights the Obama administration’s approach to improving relations with Russia that critics say has neglected past U.S. priorities for Russia, such as advancing democracy and the rule of law. Instead, the administration has sought to win Russian cooperation with U.S. goals at the United Nations, to sanction Iran and to win cooperation for U.S. military operations in Afghanistan.

The centerpiece of the so-called “reset” in Russian ties was the signing in April of the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), an agreement the White House wants ratified before the end of the year during the current lame-duck session of the Senate.

Mr. Nemtsov, who said he supports arms control, noted that the United States signed a similar arms treaty with Soviet-era leader Leonid Brezhnev.

“Now [Prime Minister Vladimir] Putin is in power; it will not reset. Reset is confidence. Do we have confidence? The answer is ‘no,’ because Putin has absolutely different values than Obama. Obama believes really in rule of law, freedom, freedom of speech and democracy. Putin believes in money, business and power,” he said.

But Mr. Nemtsov was particularly critical of Mr. Obama’s track record on promoting democracy.

Mr. Nemtsov, in a later interview, said he met Mr. Obama in July 2009 during the president’s visit to Moscow.

In the meeting, Mr. Nemtsov presented Mr. Obama with a copy of a 2005 Senate resolution co-sponsored by then-Sen. Obama condemning the arrest of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, a Russian oligarch who was detained in 2005 on charges widely considered to be political retaliation from Mr. Putin, who was then Russia’s president.

Mr. Nemtsov said the president’s face had no expression when presented with the old resolution. He only said, “I know.”

“I was disappointed,” Mr. Nemtsov said of the encounter with Mr. Obama over Mr. Khodorkovsky. “I talked with [White House Russia specialist] Michael McFaul about that. He had a clear position about this case; he agreed with me. I don’t think Obama had a clear position. If Obama had this position, I am sure he would have responded.”

White House spokesman Tommy Vietor said in an e-mail Monday that Mr. Obama raised the issue of Mr. Khodorkovsky with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in their latest meeting on Nov. 13.

In a readout of that meeting, a senior administration official said the two leaders “did discuss democracy and human rights.” This official added that “President Obama said that he was very pleased with the very tough statements that President Medvedev made about the beating of journalists last week.”

On Tuesday, James Steinberg, deputy secretary of state, also defended the Obama administration’s record on promoting democracy and human rights in Russia.

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