I don't want to insult the people in charge of Russia's foreign policy, but the recent behavior of officials toward the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe resembles a bull in a china shop. Over recent months, Russia has said it wants to restrict the activity of European observers on Russian soil. The restrictions would mainly apply to the North Caucasus and the Chechen, Ingush and Dagestani sections of the Georgian-Russian border, in particular. In hopes of enforcing these restrictions, the Kremlin has basically tried to blackmail the OSCE, saying it would not pass the organization's budget for 2005 unless it accepted Russia's limits.
Russia wants to kill a dozen birds with one stone, as it is also proposing to slash its annual contribution to the OSCE from $11.5 million to about $4 million.
The reasons for holding up the budget are quite clear. The OSCE has exposed the Kremlin as a defender of dishonest elections around the former Soviet Union. In Russia's regions, the use of administrative resources has obliterated the basic human right to participate in free elections. After losing the game in every recent election in post-Soviet countries, Russia's response has been to argue that the West was trying to introduce its standards by demanding control over the voting process. President Vladimir Putin even went so far as to claim that the West was acting like a "tough but good guy in a pith helmet."
According to this logic, the Kremlin should quit the OSCE altogether and save itself the membership fee. Instead, it is demanding that the OSCE be reformed. This stance cannot be taken seriously. It seems like part of a comedy act.
In December, Alexei Borodavkin, the State Duma's representative to the OSCE, accused the organization of double standards and bias in its election monitoring. "The organization has shown tendencies toward stagnation and regression, and bias, double standards and various kinds of imbalances have come to dominate," Radio Liberty quoted him as saying. "Naturally, this destabilizes the political situation in these countries and gives rise to various kinds of extremist statements and, sometimes, actions. The latest example in Ukraine is very illustrative."
Yes, it was quite illustrative, especially in relation to the Kremlin's policy, but this, it seems, doesn't bother most Russian politicians.
One thing I just can't seem to understand is how the Kremlin could be so thoughtless as to accuse the OSCE of introducing double standards, when Russian officials and Putin are guilty of just that in their bizarre relationship to the organization. Their logic is puzzling: Russia calls for changes to the OSCE and then demands the organization let Russia reduce its financial participation to 1.69 percent of its budget. In other words, you do everything we tell you to, but we won't do a thing for you.
"Russia cannot be understood with the mind," as Russian poet Fyodor Tyutchev said back in the 19th century, and in this case, the phrase hits the nail on the head. We are left wondering, however, which part of the human body we should be using to comprehend the behavior of a government that considers the country it runs an important player in European society.
I had hoped that the recent experience with Ukraine's presidential elections would have brought the Russian political elite to its senses. They should have grasped that Europe does not have to reform its organizations to please the Kremlin and that the Kremlin needs to reform its foreign and domestic policy if it wants to get closer to European standards of living. Achieving those standards is what those behind the Kremlin walls have announced as their aim many times.
Yet the Kremlin keeps hitting its head against the wall and ignoring the open door right next to it. This can mean only one thing: Putin has a really sturdy pith helmet.
Vladimir Kovalyev is a Staff Writer at The St. Petersburg Times.