(photo credit: AP)
The results of yesterday's parliamentary voting in Russia were hardly surprising, because rigged elections are never surprising. Russian President Vladimir Putin, though ostensibly on his way out of office, has been busy consolidating his power for the indefinite future.
A recent poll conducted by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty found that nearly two-thirds of voting-age Russians did not believe that the elections would be conducted honestly. And this is after Putin has taken considerable steps to shut out opposition parties. Nearly half of those polled said if they did vote, it would be out of a sense of "duty."
It is a terrible shame that, 18 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Russia is not further along on the road to real democracy. If anything, it is now moving in the other direction. The temporary jailing of opposition figures, such as Garry Kasparov, the rampant changing of election rules and the suspected assassination of whistleblowers all carry the markings of a descent into a classic dictatorial mode.
It is no coincidence that the steady loss of freedom in Russia has also been accompanied by an increasingly anti-Western foreign policy. Though there is much that Europe and the US can do on their own, within the framework of existing UN Security Council resolutions, to greatly increase the economic and diplomatic pressure on Iran, it is Russia that has been directly blocking tighter sanctions in the UN.
Nor is this the most egregious Russian action regarding the most urgent security threat of our time: Russia not only has and continues to provide sophisticated defenses for Iran's nuclear installations, but continues to build and provide nuclear fuel for Iranian reactors.
On Saturday the International Atomic Energy Agency approved a shipment of uranium fuel rods to the Bushehr reactor that Russia is constructing for Iran. The IAEA, according to a senior Russian official at the plant supplying the fuel rods, "confirmed the enrichment of uranium-235 to lower than 5 percent." But this does stop Iran from potentially diverting uranium and enriching it for its weapons program.
Putin, for his part, recently repeated his commitment to finish the Bushehr reactor, while at same time claiming that construction delays have been due to Iran's failure to pay on time. At any moment, Putin could decide to ignore such "payment problems" and move ahead with completing a reactor that would no doubt be one of the key facilities targeted in a last-resort military action to block Teheran's race to obtain nuclear weapons capability.
Russia's official stance, then, is to block tough economic sanctions and strongly oppose military action, while providing Iran with nuclear fuel and air defenses. Though Putin claims to be opposed to letting Iran obtain the bomb, it is hard to see how he could be more central to ensuring precisely such an outcome.
The question, at this point, is when Western nations should stop pretending that Russia is playing a constructive role and start putting public pressure on the Kremlin to end its role as Teheran's first line of defense - literally and diplomatically. Western nations, for example, could start saying that Russia's status as a member of the G-8 should not be taken for granted, given that its GDP in 2006 was half that of Italy, not to mention around a third of China's, which is not a G8 member.
If Putin's Russia does not obviously qualify to be in the West's most elite club from either a GDP or democracy perspective, and is actively opposing the West's premier security interests, why should Russia be included?
The G7, we should remember, only became the G8 in 1997, toward the end of the Clinton administration, when Russia was invited to join. It was not automatic with the fall of the Soviet Union, and it was based on the premise that Russia was becoming more democratic, not less.
That premise bears reexamination, and soon. The idea that including Russia in the West's political-economic system would accelerate positive reform seems to have been premature. The West needs to send a clear message to Russia: We want you to be part of us, but you cannot be both inside and outside, benefiting from membership in the West while aiding the West's sworn enemies. "Membership has its privileges," as the American Express slogan goes, but it also has responsibilities.
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