What is the Big Idea?
Vladimir Putin is officially back for his third term as president of Russia, but this time he faces a different political climate than he did in his first two stints, writes former Belgium prime minister Guy Verhofstadt, for The New York Times.
"Even he cannot prevent the arrival of a Russian Spring if reform is permanently stifled," said Verhofstadt. "The West must also be ready and willing to play its part in pressing for change."
So how does this Russia differ from the one he handed over to Dmitri Medvedev in 2008?
- Promises of modernization and a rule of law were empty gestures as the already crumbling political system, corrupted to its core, continued to falter.
- A stagnant economy, an uncertain business climate, degraded infrastructure and social sector, an unrealistic and inflationary budget and a pension system funded largely by exorbitant oil prices do not constitute a solid basis to advance the country in a sustainable way.
- There is now a revived civil society, a vibrant Russian middle class, educated Muscovites and a political opposition from left to right that refuses to remain passive.
What is the Significance?
Russia is long overdue for change and it is as much in the interest of the West as of Russia itself, says Verhofstadt. But the West can only do so much.
"Russia needs a complete reboot of the system," he writes. "But the changes need to come from within, and they will only be credible if they are legitimate in the eyes of the Russian people."
Russia needs access to and respect from the outside world. The European Union and the United States needs a united front to leverage their power and push the country towards reform, fair elections and real political competition.
So what can they do to push Russia in the right direction?
- There should be no more summits that discuss modernization without discussing democracy, human rights and the rule of law.
- The adoption of similar laws on both sides of the Atlantic to block visas and freeze the assets of those Russian officials, and their immediate families, involved or complicit in the murder of Sergei Magnitsky, the lawyer who died in jail after alleging widespread tax fraud by officials, would have a sobering effect.
- Reviving the Helsinki process for democracy, human rights and the rule of law in Russia could be an effective tool to promote change. Based on the Helsinki accord of 1975, the international community should unite in its efforts to support Russian civil society.
"Russia is a proud country with a proud people," says Verhofstadt. "The international community should speak out plainly and act firmly. But ultimately change must and will come from within."
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