Five Russia-Related Issues to Watch this Semester

The SRAS Newsletter has been on vacation for much of the summer. However, we’ve continued to follow the major issues surrounding Russia. To bring our publication up to date, I’ve chosen what I think are the five most important stories of the summer that will continue to develop and be important in US-Russia relations over the coming semester. Those interested in how these situations will continue to play out as it plays out are encouraged to follow SRAS on Facebook.


New US-Russia Visa Regime 3

A deal long-negotiated and finally ratified, a new, simplified US-Russia visa regime will take effect on September 9, 2012. Both countries will issue business, tourist, private, and humanitarian visas that allow for stays of up to six months, and are valid for three years of multiple-entry travel. US citizens will no longer need an invitation processed by the Russian government in order to apply for a visa. More details can be found on the US embassy website.

This new agreement will not affect student visas or other visa types. Students on SRAS programs will continue to receive visa support and guidance from SRAS. SRAS will also continue to provide visa assistance to researchers and for faculty led tours.

Previous visa reforms have typically needed time to start running smoothly – for example, when the embassy switched to all-electronic applications before the online form was glitch-free. The recent switch to a contractor to accept visa applications has also not been without problems. Problems are also commonly created by the fact that individual consuls interpret instructions from the Foreign Ministry individually.

This reform will likely be no different. The Foreign Ministry issued instructions on its implementation only on the weekend before September 9. Thus, details like actual procedures, updated forms, etc. will probably not be ready in time. The instructions also state that applicants will still need a document from a registered tourist services provider or a host organization. This means that an “invitation” will still be required, probably in the same form for tourist visas and probably in a less formal (and probably less expensive) form for business visas.

The consul head for the Foreign Ministry’s North America department has stated that he believes that “old style” visas will be available to Americans upon request for a period of one year while the new system is implemented. This should help to alleviate major difficulties during the transition.

So, while business and tourist visa processing may be a bit more confused over the next few weeks or months, the reforms should make visas a little easier in the end. In other good news, the Russians have expressed interest in continuing to negotiate further simplifications.


Russia Enters WTO


Ministry of Economic Development of the Russian Federation Elvira Nabiullina and WTO Director-General Pascal Lamy.

Russia became the 156th member of the World Trade Organization on August 22, 2012. This process took nearly 18 years to negotiate, in large part because Russia had to secure the approval of all 155 countries which already held membership. Thus, the process was difficult given Russia’s obviously strained relations with WTO members like Georgia, and the fact that Washington has resisted giving Russia permanent normal trade relations (PNTR) and has shown persistent wariness in relations with Russia in general.

Russia will face changes in 116 economic sectors, with most import duties set to fall. The WTO and the Russian government estimate that Russia will gain over three GDP percentage points thanks to its membership and the resultant increased trade.

Supporters of ascension in the US point out persistent issues about intellectual property and agricultural imports (like poultry) will now have an international arbitrator. Supporters of ascension in Russia point out that prices for consumer goods and food will likely fall and that Russia will also have an international arbitrator (especially for exports like steel, chemicals, and agricultural products).

Those who oppose ascension in Russia worry that increased competition will harm local manufacturing (like the auto industry) and agricultural producers31% of all Russians believe that ascension will harm Russia overall and every political party in Russia’s State Duma except United Russia (the ruling party) voted against the bill.

Detractors in the US argue that a country whose record on human rights they question should not be rewarded with membership in another international organization. and some fear that Russia may use dumping practices to weaken certain US industries, such as steel.

Meanwhile, the US Congress has chosen not to act on legislation to grant Russia PNTR, which means that American companies may not benefit from and may be at a global disadvantageafter Russia’s ascension.


Election Year Politics


Mitt Romney vows to be tougher with Russia if elected.

This year Russia is a significant issue in the US presidential election. Russia’s role has been a very public one for the Republicans: Mitt Romney has called Russia America’s “number one geopolitical foe” and, in his acceptance speech for the Republican nomination, singled out Russia‘s leader as one that will “see a little less flexibility and more backbone” if Romney is elected president. Romney also published an article with the Washington Post asserting that the New START Treaty, an agreement on nuclear arms signed with Russia, “could be (Obama’s) worst foreign policy mistake.”

While the Democrats have not actively defended Russia, the difference between Russia’s treatment in the foreign policy sections of the Democratic and Republican platforms is striking.

In the Democrat’s text, New START is a “landmark” deal with “bipartisan consensus among former National Security Advisors, Secretaries of Defense, and Secretaries of State that New START makes America safer.” Russia is consistently referred to as a country that must be “worked with” on issues like trade, Afghanistan, Iran, and North Korea. While “actions that we oppose” are mentioned on issues such as Syria, the platform makes no mention of human rights in connection to Russia.

In the Republican’s text, “Russian activism” is listed as one of the “gravest threats to our national security this country has faced” and a nuclear arsenal is needed to deter Russian action. While the Russian people are lauded and permanent normal trade relations are supported for Russia, sanctions against “Russian officials who have used the government to violate human rights” in the form of the Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act is also specifically supported.

In Russia, television news consistently refers to the Romney/Ryan ticket as “radical,” “near radical,” and “ultra-conservative.” Russian President Vladimir Putin has stated in a recent interview that he “can work with Romney” but that progress on issues such as missile defense will be much more likely under Obama.


Syria and International Balances


An Assad supporter demonstrating.

As the situation in Syria has escalated, so have debates concerning what should be done there.

Russia, with China, has vetoed three different UN Security Council resolutions on Syria. A new US-backed draft threatens military action and sanctions. A competing draft by Russia would call on all sides to lay down arms simultaneously. Neither is likely to pass.

The criticism of Russia from the West can probably best be summed by a quote from Secretary of State Hilary Clinton: “It’s quite distressing to see two permanent members of the Security Council using their veto while people are being murdered — women, children, brave young men… It is just despicable and I ask whose side are they on? They are clearly not on the side of the Syrian people.”

Russia claims that the resolutions have favored the rebels, which it says are also guilty of atrocities and that religious extremists among them are helping to fuel violence.

Russia has also argued that military intervention is unlikely to stop the conflict. Syria is small but densely populated, heavily urban, and heavily armed. A relatively powerful minority supports the regime. The rebels do not hold significant geographical bases from which they could easily regroup and be resupplied. Airpower (critical in Libya and Iraq), would have to be supplemented by ground troops and street-to-street battles. An invasion could mean entering a protracted civil war with heavy causalities on all sides, including civilian.

Russia has reportedly ended its lucrative arms sales to Syria although it had continued to honor military contracts with Syria for some time. Russia has accused “other states” of arming the rebels. The US is openly supplying diplomatic and intelligence assistance to the rebels but denies arming them. Arab states are also accused of arming the rebels. Russia has suggested that all states end all arms shipments.

Currently, at the behest of Turkey, a US-ally which has been greatly affected by the crisis in Syria, including accepting refugees and having one of its planes shot down, the UN is considering enforcing “buffer zones” within Syria. Russia says the plan would violate international law.

Perhaps most significant in this situation are the possible international ramifications. It is now causing divisions within the UN, including a condemnation of the Security Council by the General Assembly. The UN Secretary General has also stated that the conflict may become a “proxy war.” Various Muslim states, Russia, China, the US, and Europe might all face off against each other.


The Educational Value of Pussy Riot


Pussy Riot at a previous unauthorized performance.

Pussy Riot has become the new face in the West for human rights in Russia. Musicians such as BjorkRed Hot Chili PeppersThe Beastie BoysGreen DayFaith No MoreMadonna, and even the MTV music awards have all worked to spread the word about them. The US State Departmenthas acknowledged them and, especially as they now figure in American pop culture, they will probably figure in US-Russia diplomacy for at least the near future. There is also anecdotal evidence that it might help boost Russian enrollments at US universities as well.

The issues surrounding the Pussy Riot case represent fundamental questions about what makes a civilization and what constitutes freedom. However, most reporting on this case has been devoid of the philosophical and cultural context which is essential to truly question – and truly change – a society or state. Bringing about such questioning and such change is, as Pussy Riot members stated at their trail, the major reason why they committed their act in the first place.

On February 21, 2012, four young women entered Christ the Savior Cathedral. Located a short walk from the Kremlin, this is the center of the Russian Orthodox faith, whose patriarch has been a bulwark of conservatism in Russian society and one of President Vladimir Putin’s most adamant supporters. The girls performed a song praying to the Virgin Mary to “drive Putin out.” A bold move intended to make sure that Putin himself would hear that they had challenged his rule, they knew that what they were doing might result in their arrest (it had before), but they did it anyway. Three of the girls were arrested, tried, and convicted under Russia’s laws for religious hatred and sentenced to two years in jail with time served.

To place this in wider context, we should first remember that in no society is freedom of speech absolute. US legislation, for instance, restricts obscene, libelous, or slanderous speech that which might endanger individual, public, or national security.

What should be done when two rights conflict is a major philosophical and legal question. Christ the Savior Cathedral is a working church. As Pussy Riot performed, tourists and church officials were present, as well as Orthodox believers who had come to say prayers, pay respect to icons, and perform other religious acts they believe to be necessary and sacred. When in conflict, should freedom of speech or freedom of religion be given precedence?

The cathedral is also private property owned by the Russian Orthodox Church. Like most churches (and restaurants, bars, sports arenas, etc.), it is open to the public but also has enforced rules of behavior.

Courts in most major western countries have handled such cases when these rights come into conflict.

Recently, in Germany, Pussy Riot supporters entered a Catholic Cathedral, held up a sign, and chanted slogans. They were arrested for disturbing the peace and disturbing a religious service. If convicted, they could face up to three years in prison under German law. In 1989, a group of American protestors entered Saint Patrick’s Cathedral in New York to protest the Catholic Church’s opposition to condoms and AIDS education. Arrested, they faced fines of up to $400 and/or 90-day jail sentences under for disturbing the peace in New York (most were given small fines and released).

In late 2012, eight protestors with Occupy Wall Street broke into a private lot owned by Trinity Church in New York to set up camp. Most were convicted of trespassing and sentenced to community service. All eight faced maximum prison terms of up to 90 days. The church, which had pressed the charges leading to the conviction, stated that “While we are sympathetic to many of the O.W.S. protesters’ stated goals, we do not support the seizure of private property.”

Criminal charges are often used to balance competing rights. The sentencing of Pussy Riot can be considered harsh in comparison to the American examples, but is not unreasonable under German law.

The difference between the Russian, American, and German legislation can be partly explained by history. In America, freedom of religion has been considered an inalienable and largely unquestioned right for two centuries. Germany, however, has had recent experience with fascism that saw millions of Jews and other minorities killed for their beliefs. German law is thus vigilant about stamping out anything which might be termed “intolerance.”

Russia, under its 70 years of Communism, was officially atheist. The church was repressed and its leaders often targeted for persecution and even execution. Religious freedom in Russia is still new and seen as something to vigilantly protect, particularly as Russians, even those that are not otherwise actively religious, view Orthodoxy as a part of their national identity.

The church has increasingly taken the stance that there is a war against it and has become increasingly political. Although most Russians believe the church should be apolitical, some church members are also politicizing and taking initiative to form an Orthodox political partyand even vigilante “Orthodox squads.” The church had a significant role in the prosecution of Pussy Riot.

Two latest polls by two different polling agencies have shown that most Russians believe the sentence delivered was fair. An earlier poll taken before a majority of Russians were made aware of the events, a majority reported that the girls should only be fined or given community service. As most Russians get their news from TV, which gave largely negative reporting of the defendants, the media likely influenced opinion. However, most Russians in all three polls believed that the performance was either a disturbance of the peace or an act of religious intolerance to be prosecuted.

Examining the Pussy Riot case, we can see a number of issues that have always affected civilizations. How are the various rights of individuals to be balanced, especially when they come into conflict? To what extent should we let our past determine how our present should be lived? How active should religion be in politics and politics be in religion? How much power should the media have? Should reporting be opinionated or strive to be maximally informative? Are the answers to these questions the same for Russia, the US, and Germany?

As the Pussy Riot case goes to appeal, these issues will continue to affect Russian society. These are also eternal social and governance issues, and should be under continual examination in all societies everywhere if civil society is to remain strong, if cherished rights are to remain optimally balanced, dictatorship and oppression kept at bay, and a continual, free, and reasoned discourse maintained.


About the Author

Josh Wilson

Josh has been with SRAS since 2003. He holds an M.A. in Theatre and a B.A. in History from Idaho State University, where his masters thesis was written on the political economy of Soviet-era censorship organs affecting the stage. He lived in Moscow from 2003-2022, where he ran Moscow operations for SRAS. At SRAS, Josh still assists in program development and leads our internship programs. He is also the editor-in-chief for the SRAS newsletter, the SRAS Family of Sites, and Vestnik. He has previously served as Communications Director to Bellerage Alinga and has served as a consultant or translator to several businesses and organizations with interests in Russia.

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