At the “Common Vision for a Common Neighborhood” (sounds very common) conference in Lithuania yesterday,Vice President Dick Cheney essentially told a gathering of former Soviet and Eastern Bloc countries that Russia is an anti-democratic menace to Democracy and has a decision to make very soon: to be either an ally or an enemy to the West.
"From religion and the news media, to advocacy groups and political parties, the government has unfairly and improperly restricted the rights of the people," Cheney bellowed. He talked of the problems facing a country that, “has compromised the rule of law” and has “little official respect for human rights, a corrupt beaurocracy, and an intimidated press corps.”
Cheney knows that Russia-bashing is a popular sport in the former Eastern Bloc countries. For the last 15 years the former Eastern Bloc countries have been worshipfully devoted to the United States in a misconception that America single-handedly ended Soviet domination over them. But as they join the EU, neo-cons are increasingly concerned that they will fall into the European camp of geopolitical thought and develop interests contrary to those of the United States over the long term. These eastern bloc and ex-soviet countries were some of the most vocal and demonstrative supporters of the Iraq war, for instance. But of late that support has been slipping.
Perhaps Cheney is attempting to draw a new iron curtain – or more of an “iron buffer zone” – between Russia and Europe. The zone Cheney envisions would be loyal to neither Europe or Russia, but represent the interests of the United States. In many ways, the neo-cons see Eastern Europe as the rightful spoils of a US victory in the Cold War.
It is odd that the Bush administration can be so openly critical of Russia when China’s human rights and press abuses are so much worse. During his recent visit President Hu was lauded with praise from the administration, which has been virtually silent on China’s record on human rights record. So why the double standard? The reason is that China is a cooperative economic partner, wheras Russia has become increasingly less and less friendly to US business interests. Russia’s recent temporary shut-down of a natural gas pipeline passing through Ukraine and going to Europe last New Year's Day, for instance, called its dependability as a business partner into question.
So what exactly did this speech accomplish other than antagonizing a country which could destroy the world six times over with its nuclear arsenal? The reaction in Russia has been alarming. The Kremlin called the speech, “completely incomprehensible.” The Russian press compared it to the 1946 speech by Winston Churchill in Fulton, Missouri where he introduced the concept of the “iron curtain.” The business Daily Kommersant’s front page headline today ran, “Enemy at the Gates: Dick Cheney made a Fulton speech in Vilnius”. This headline is pretty frightening when you take into account that the Fulton speech was basically the declaration of war which ushered in the Cold War. “The Cold War has restarted, only now the front lines have shifted,” writes the paper.
In the short term, the speech may intimidate Russia into cooperating with US demands, including not exercising its veto power in any UN resolution against Iran. Or, it could not. Russia’s top-selling daily, Komsomolskaya Pravda, wrote today in an editorial, “What can Russia do? It would appear it will have to strengthen ties with Belarus and Central Asia. And get close to China, to balance this Western might.”
This administration has developed a habit of condemning certain countries' human rights abuses (Iraq, Russia, Iran) and not others (Saudi Arabia, Indoniesia, Nigeria). To this end, they've used America’s reputation as a bulwark of democracy as a weapon against regimes which are not cooperating economically with the United States. But doing so, they are squandering the moral capital the US has built over 200 years. Of course this cynical use of America's Democratic reputation isn't the only thing damaging the US's image as a champion of human rights. The Bush Administration is now declining to seek election for the US next week to the new human rights council in the UN. Apparently human rights are only important when they’re being abused by an economically unfriendly nation.
"I see no hope of a peaceful and stable future for humanity in this century unless the United States provides strong and enlightened global leadership," Kofi Annan said today, pleading with the US to join the UN group. But the Bush administration was too busy chastising Russia for its human rights abuses to hear him.