Did Michael McFaul, President Barack Obama’s top adviser on Russia, tell the Kremlin on Monday that democracy in Russia was less important to the United States than before -- or was there simply a misunderstanding? Russian officials thought that was what he said, according to The Moscow Times, although later a U.S. Embassy spokesman said that the Russians had misinterpreted his remarks and that McFaul and other American officials still plan to bring up the issue of democracy and human rights on a regular basis with people at the Kremlin. Still, McFaul said that they would use a slightly different approach in the future.
“Rather than us telling the Russian government how to act and giving the money to NGOs, and we’ll continue to do those things, but a new idea is: Let’s put our societies together. And let the government get out of the way,” he said, according to The Moscow Times. Not exactly a strong show of support for how the United States is going to promote democracy in Russia. It's also a departure from the past when American officials made freedom a central part of the relationship with the Kremlin and consistently pushed for greater democracy. To be sure, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton continued a long-standing tradition of American diplomats of meeting human-rights workers in Moscow, as Lev Ponomaryov, a member of the Moscow Helsinki Geroup, visited her at the U.S. Embassy. Nevertheless, there is a shift in tone among the American officials about how they view the U.S. role in promoting democracy and human rights in Russia.
Meanwhile, there are increasing signs that things are less free for Russians. One historian, Mikhail Suprun, who has been writing about the way that thousands of ethnic Germans who were living in the Soviet Union disappeared into the gulag between the years of 1945 and 1956 under the orders of Josef Stalin, was recently arrested. Federal Security Service investigators have confiscated his computers and books, and he could face four years in prison, if he is convicted of the charges against him (he has been accused of violating the privacy of the German families). “They ruined a lifetime’s work,” Suprun told Interpress. Not surprisingly, the threat of legal sanctions, or even a prison sentence, has a chilling affect on academic work, hindering what researchers write and publish, Russian defense experts and scientists tell me.