ROAR: Russia, US open “a channel for exchange of democratic values”

Vladimir Kremlev for RT
The Civil Society working group within the Russian-US joint presidential commission has gathered for the first time in Washington to discuss corruption, crimes against children and negative stereotypes.

The participants of the group, which was established during US President Barack Obama’s visit to Moscow in July last year, are entitled to discuss more topics in the future. On the whole, the presidential commission comprises 13 working groups covering different areas of cooperation.

In one of its first moves during the meeting on January 27, the group concluded an agreement with Transparency International about cooperation for monitoring corruption level in Russia and the US.

The participants of the meeting also discussed the protection of children’s rights, issues of adoption and fighting child pornography. The commission has achieved significant progress, Russian Presidential Ombudsman for Children Pavel Astakhov believes.

“Unfortunately, neither Russia nor America can boast of high standards in protecting children’s rights,” Astakhov was quoted by RIA Novosti as saying. The level of crime against children is high in both countries, he said.

Moscow is interested in using the US experience in controlling people who have committed crimes against children, the ombudsman said. And Russia may share its experience with the Americans in the issue of adopting children, he added.

Non-commercial organizations may help in tracking the fate of adopted children, because “very often obligatory annual reports on a child’s life are not submitted to the country from which he or she was adopted,” Astakhov said.

The commission also discussed stereotypes about both Russia and the US. These stereotypes have existed for a long time, Russian human rights ombudsman Vladimir Lukin said. “They affect in a negative way the relations between our citizens, and, mainly, the relations between the states,” he stressed.

A special report on this issue had been prepared in Russia, in which “the dynamics of such stereotypes is being tracked,” Lukin said. According to him, the report demonstrates that on the whole Russians have positive attitudes towards ordinary Americans and view the activities of the US state rather negatively.

At the same time, Russian Deputy Presidential Chief of Staff Vladislav Surkov, a co-chairman of the commission, said prior to the meeting in Washington that the countries were not going to “lecture each other.”

Some Russian human rights activists have criticized Surkov’ appointment, and 71 US congressmen, mainly Republicans, asked Obama to boycott the Civil Society working group until Moscow replaced the Russia’s co-chair.

In an interview, Surkov responded by saying that “everyone is entitled to their own opinion.” He described the criticism as “a small part of a larger mass of misconceptions.”

It was not surprising that the first official meeting of the Civil Society working group “has drawn disproportionately great interest from mass media,” said Maksim Minaev of the Center for Political Conjuncture. “For the first time in modern history of the bilateral relations the presidents of the US and Russia have decided to start a direct intergovernmental dialogue on the issues of social and political cooperation,” he noted.

The vector of developing this dialogue will be determined by representatives of state organs without “essential non-governmental mediation, which is often counterproductive in such cases,” the analyst stressed.

The working group is able to become “a channel for exchange of democratic values,” Minaev said, adding that the US co-chair of the group, presidential aide Michael McFaul, “has sounded a new understanding by Washington of the principles of the international order.” Its cornerstone is “the state sovereignty – indefeasible right of every country to defend its borders, as well as pursuing independent internal and foreign policies,” Minaev said. Surkov floated the idea of “sovereign democracy” in 2006.

When Surkov and McFaul met, they exchanged jokes, a source in the commission told Nezavisimaya Gazeta daily. McFaul said there had been an ambiguous reaction in the US to Surkov’s appointment as a co-chair. The Russian deputy presidential chief of staff allegedly replied that “McFaul’s appointment had gone unnoticed at all in Russia because nobody knows him there,” the daily said.

However, at the last session of the presidential Council for Civil Society Institutions and Human Rights on November 23 activists assessed positively “the activities of the working group on developing legislation on non-commercial organizations, which is headed by Surkov,” the paper said. “Human rights activists have recognized that the law has become much more loyal to such organizations,” the daily said.

Many observers concentrate their attention on Surkov’s figure rather than on the working group’s agenda, believes political analyst Tatyana Stanovaya. “Against a background of ‘the reset,’ in the framework of which the US officially refuse to criticize Russia in the sphere of democracy and human rights, the creation [of the group] had to become a less painful means of cooperation for Russia,” she wrote on website.

The US administration had received the opportunity to keep the issue of human rights on the agenda of the bilateral relations (to be able to respond to criticism inside the US), and Russia had agreed to conduct manageable and bilateral discussion of these topics,” Stanovaya said.

Moscow and Washington also agreed that officials will be the permanent participants of the working group. This is quite understandable, the analyst said, “otherwise, the American side would deal with loyal human rights activists, which makes the initial idea senseless.”

Many liberals and human rights activists in Russia also criticized the US for agreeing to have Surkov as co-chair of the group, the analyst said. “But if the decision has been taken [by the US] not to criticize but to discuss, then it would be wiser to deal with someone who is really responsible for this sphere,” she added.

The compromise version of the working group generates “understandable risks” because it will solve simultaneously both “diplomatic and human rights tasks,” Stanovaya said. It is not quite clear yet if the group has been created for “channeling discussions of unpleasant issues for the Kremlin to further the reset, or for direct promoting human rights topics,” she said.

The balance between these tasks is expected to be flexible and will “depend on the overall character of the bilateral relations,” Stanovaya believes. In case of problems with the reset, increasing criticism of the Obama administration inside the US and the absence of progress during the talks on strategic offensive arms, the working group may still turn “into a platform for lecturing Russia,” she said. “And this, in turn, may question the future existence of the group,” the analyst said, adding, however, that this is “the worst possible scenario.”

In the conditions “of keeping relatively favorable character of the bilateral relations,” the work of the group will be stable enough, she said.

Sergey Borisov, RT