20 years under Putin: a timeline

On March 4th, policymakers, analysts, and human rights activists from Russia, the United States, and the European Union, gathered in Washington to discuss the prospects of the West’s relationship with Moscow. The forum entitled “New Approach or Business As Usual?” was co-hosted by the Institute of Modern Russia, the Foreign Policy Initiative, and Freedom House.



A year ago, despite the unprecedented mass protests against his regime, Vladimir Putin formally regained the presidency. His return was marked by a series of repressive laws aimed at silencing the protest movement. The “Putin crackdown” raised the question of whether the US and the EU should continue their cooperation with the current Russian government, or develop a new approach, in which human rights would be the central issue.

As Congressman James McGovern (D-MA) pointed out in his opening remarks before the panel on “Putin Crackdown: A View From Moscow,” recent repressive laws and human rights violations in Russia add up to a grim picture. He noted that the Russian government has received a clear message that there is a limit to these violations, and “these limits start at the US borders.” McGovern was a lead sponsor of the Magnitsky Act, which banned Russian human rights violators from traveling to and owning assets in the US. He emphasized that the bill was not “just a talking point,” but a serious bipartisan effort, and asserted that the list may be extended globally.

McGovern expressed his disappointment with the Kremlin’s vindictive response to Magnitsky Act, the law banning US citizens from adopting Russian orphans, noting that this ban “highlighted the sad irony of the relationship between the two countries,” which cannot be built on the “shaky ground of corruption and human rights violations.”

Despite the government’s attempts to show that the opposition has failed, it is clear to everyone that changes in Russia are inevitable.

Guy Verhofstadt, leader of the ALDE Group in the European Parliament and a former prime minister of Belgium, called on Western leaders to develop a common agenda, because “the international community is pretending to go along with anything not to antagonize Russia.” Verhofstadt suggested that Western democracies should demonstrate that they are behind Russia’s interests by re-launching the Helsinki process.

This message was supported by Ludmila Alekseeva, chairperson of the Moscow Helsinki Group, who was recently nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. She discussed the law that forces Russian NGOs, which receive funding from abroad, to register as “foreign agents.” “This bill targets our programs, and it can destroy the human rights community,” Alekseeva said. “Russian businessmen do not dare to finance NGOs, because they are scared.” She noted that the arrest of Mikhail Khodorkovsky was a signal to the business community.

Despite the new law, the Moscow Helsinki Group decided not to register as a “foreign agent” because, as Alekseeva explained, in that case it “will breach another law that prohibits us from providing false information.”

Former Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov, co-chairman of the Republican Party of Russia–People's Freedom Party, pointed to the recent protests in the country, noting that the December 2011 rallies led to “the awakening of the civil society and political opposition.” In his view, despite the government’s attempts to show that the opposition has failed, it is clear to everyone that changes in Russia are inevitable.


IMR President Pavel Khodorkovsky (pictured) co-hosted the forum with Freedom House President David Kramer and Ellen Bork, director of Human Rights and Democracy at the Foreign Policy Initiative.


Another forum participant was Dmitri Gudkov, a member of the State Duma and one of only eight Russian lawmakers who voted against the adoption ban. Prior to the conference, Gudkov visited several American families who had adopted Russian orphans. He began his presentation by thanking these families for “taking care of our children.”

“Putin always emphasizes the importance of fighting corruption, so let us help him punish those bribe-takers by providing information on their accounts in foreign banks, their foreign assets and capital,” Gudkov said with sarcasm. “Recent polls show that some 40 percent of Russians support the Magnitsky Act. It is a very effective law because it is easy to explain to people.”

The second panel, entitled “Should the West Respond—And How?”, was opened by Senator Benjamin Cardin (D-MD), a key figure behind the Magnitsky Act, who currently chairs the US Helsinki Commission. Cardin noted that it is important to advance democracy in the world, because the countries’ stability is “based not just on military strength, but also the respect for human rights and economic freedom.”

Kristiina Ojuland, a member of the European Parliament and a former Estonian foreign minister, called on the US and the EU to develop a joint “transatlantic approach” to Russia. She emphasized that this does not imply “acting against Russia or the Russian people.” “We need to target the regime and to address its problems,” Ojuland added.

There are two Russias—the “Russia of the Kremlin” and the “Russia of civil society,” which are in conflict with each other.

“Today, we are working with the US Congress very closely with regard to a number of issues that concern the public,” continued Edward McMillan-Scott, a vice-president of the European Parliament. He noted that, since 2004, the perception of Russia within the EU has changed “from tolerant to very critical.” The lawmaker added that a European Magnitsky Act is already being developed, but its passage “will not be easy.” McMillan-Scott emphasized that the Putin regime “cannot live with impunity, like the rest of the world doesn’t exist.”

Lilia Shevtsova, senior associate at the Carnegie Moscow Center, gave several recommendations to Western leaders on adjusting their relations with Russia. In her opinion, the West must understand that cooperation with the Kremlin is only possible on the Kremlin’s terms and without any guarantees. Shevtsova emphasized that there are two Russias—the “Russia of the Kremlin” and the “Russia of civil society,” which are in conflict with each other, and that relations with them require a dual-track approach by the West. “Don’t pretend that you can have a strategic cooperation with the Russian government, because such cooperation is only possible on the basis of a convergence of values,” Shevtsova said, adding that the West should use the principle of conditionality in its dealings with the Kremlin: “If the Kremlin wants to have the benefits of the West, it has to behave at home.”

In his closing remarks, IMR President Pavel Khodorkovsky outlined some of the positive and negative trends in Russia—on the one hand, a substantial growth in civil activism, on the other, legislative changes that restrict civil liberties. “Now, as the US Congress has created an effective toolset that has human rights as its cornerstone, it can be used by other governments to formulate their policies with regard to Russia,” he noted. “I hope that our discussion will have decisive and long-lasting results that will lead to a much more stable and more democratic future for Russia.”



Russia under Putin

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