Russian authorities detained one of the country’s leading opposition figures less than two weeks after the U.S. Senate ratified a key arms-control treaty that the White House promised would help reset ties with Moscow.
Over the weekend, members of Russia’s FSB internal security service disrupted demonstrations in St. Petersburg and Moscow, arresting nearly 130 pro-democracy activists and reversing a policy of tolerating political protests once every 60 days by a coalition of democratic opposition figures in the country.
Among those arrested was Boris Nemtsov, a former deputy prime minister and the leader of the United Democratic Movement, a political party that favors Western political reforms.
“I understand that this is an attempt to frighten the opposition and frighten my family,” Mr. Nemtsov said in a statement from jail. “I understand that the authorities are enraged and nervous and don’t know how to deal with the opposition. I also understand that we have no right to retreat. And we shall not retreat.”
These arrests followed the sentencing last week of Russian businessman Mikhail Khodorkovsky, a key political opponent of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. The sentencing of Mr. Khodorkovsky to six more years in prison culminated a two-year trial that observers criticized as politically motivated.
“Everyone, including the administration, saw this harsh sentence for Khodorkovsky coming from a mile away,” said Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Florida Republican and incoming chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
“This is yet another reason why it is so perplexing that the administration insisted on ramming through New START during the lame-duck session of Congress and has also insisted on making concession after concession to Russia despite Russia’s obvious backslide in the direction of tyranny,” she said. “The ‘reset’ has been a total one-way street of concessions from the U.S. to Russia with nothing to show for in return.”
Ms. Ros-Lehtinen was referring to the passage last month of the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), an arms-control agreement that President Obama said was critical to efforts to reduce tensions with Russia.
The White House, in a statement, condemned the arrests and said it was surprising to see Moscow reverse its policy on the political demonstrations.
State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said “we were pleased that Moscow authorities had reversed their previous policy and decided to allow peaceful demonstrations. So we regret that these arrests have taken place, both in Moscow and St. Petersburg.”
Mr. Crowley noted “the importance of embracing and protecting universal values, including freedom of expression and assembly — they’re enshrined in the Russian Constitution — as well as international agreements that Russia has signed.”
However, Mr. Crowley would not say whether Russia’s treatment of political opposition figures is part of the U.S. reset of relations. More tangible gains for the United States from the reset include Russia’s cancellation of the sale of components of S-300 air-defense systems to Iran, despite signing a contract during the Bush administration to do so. Russia also supported the final passage last year of sanctions against Iran at the U.N. Security Council.
Mr. Nemtsov and nearly 130 other activists were sentenced Sunday to 14 days in jail, according to figures provided by Mr. Nemtsov’s party and local media reports. Other opposition figures who were arrested include Ilya Yashin, Kirill Manulin, Konstantin Kosyakin and Eduard Limonov.
David Kramer, the executive director of Freedom House, said he thought some members of the Obama administration believed that human rights issues were a part of the reset policy with Russia.
“I don’t think the Russian government views human rights issues as a part of the reset. We might; they don’t,” Mr. Kramer said.
Mr. Kramer noted that Mr. Obama has not been vocal about supporting human rights in Russia.
“Since a very good trip in July of 2009 to Moscow, Obama’s silence on human rights issues in Russia has been striking,” Mr. Kramer said.
In that July 2009 trip, Mr. Obama met with Mr. Nemtsov.
“What we’re trying to do is work with Russia on Iran and other key issues, but at the same time promote our values, rule of law and democracy in Russia,” said an administration official familiar with the White House view of the Russia reset.
“We think we can do both at the same time. The relationship has matured in such a way that overreaction and linkage across issues is less likely, especially between the two presidents,” the official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity.
Tom Malinowski, Washington director for Human Rights Watch, said if START had been voted down, the effect may have been worse for human rights in Russia.
“I do think a defeat of START under these circumstances would have made it easier for Putin and his faction to make the argument that satisfying U.S. concerns on human rights or anything for that matter was useless,” he said. “That said, the START agreement is not a human rights instrument and it’s not a substitute for a strong public and principled U.S. policy of opposing political repression.”
Recent disclosures of classified U.S. diplomatic cables from WikiLeaks suggest that the Bush and Obama administrations have been less than candid about the decay of freedoms in Russia under Mr. Putin.
A cable dated Dec. 30, 2009, from the U.S. Embassy political counselor in Moscow stated that the trial of Mr. Khodorkovsky showed “the great lengths that the [Russian government] is willing to go in order to place a ‘rule of law’ gloss on a politically motivated trial.”