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.
“I think it’s pretty clear, and I think we have been pretty outspoken on this, whether it’s the beatings of journalists or the imprisonment of political figures,” Mr. Steinberg said, noting that this did not impede the reset in relations with Russia.
Mr. Steinberg noted: “Obviously, one always expects opposition figures to want more. That is their job.”
Mr. Nemtsov, however, said he had no expectations that the U.S. president would bring democracy to Russia.
“I have no illusion about help from America. I don’t think an American president or the American Congress will establish democracy in my country,” he said, adding that this was the job of Russians and Russians alone.
“But I think the position of the U.S. establishment is important for the atmosphere around the Kremlin,” he said.
Mr. Nemtsov was particularly critical of a decision by Mr. McFaul to launch a civil-society dialogue with Vladislav Surkov, a Putin loyalist who founded Russian nationalist youth organizations that Mr. Nemtsov likened to Nazi youth groups in Germany under Adolf Hitler.
Mr. Nemtsov said it was perverse that Mr. Surkov, whose youth groups intimidated independent journalists in Russia, would be representing Russia in a forum aimed at expanding civil society.
Instead, Mr. Nemtsov recommended the United States government bar Mr. Surkov from traveling to the United States.
For now, Mr. Nemtsov is worried about the future of his country, but he seems less concerned for his own safety. When asked whether he has to have bodyguards in Moscow, he said he did not. When asked who protects him, he gave a one-word answer: “God.”