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About William Courtney

William Courtney is a former US ambassador to Kazakhstan and Georgia.

Articles by William Courtney

This week's editor

Rosemary Belcher-2.jpg

Rosemary Bechler is openDemocracy’s Editor.

Constitutional conventions: best practice

Kazakhstan's Democracy Gap


Over its two decades of independence Kazakhstan has made enormous progress. Economic reforms, energy exploitation and interethnic harmony are major gains. Democratic reforms, however, lag behind. William Courtney writes about the “democracy gap” that is putting the country’s future at risk.

Get real about ‘enlarging Europe’

Membership of EU and NATO continues to be a thorny question for the countries of Eastern Europe and for Turkey. Arrangements short of full membership offer economic and security benefits and should be the way forward, contend Denis Corboy, William Courtney and Kenneth Yalowitz

Central Asia: new security challenges

Kyrgyzstan’s violence underscores the instability of those former Soviet governments which are burdened by authoritarian and corrupt rule. To varying degrees, every Central Asian country faces serious threats at home and from the war in neighboring Afghanistan. They need help. The West and Russia should act, including by engaging the underutilized Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe

Russian Reform at a Turning Point

Much of Russian history is characterized by pendulum swings between orthodoxy and reform to overcome backwardness. Russia is again debating reform and the West has a vital stake.

Forward, Mr President!

Dear Mr. President,

Your September 10 article on Russia's challenges is laudably frank and incisive in its analysis and call for sweeping reform.  You voiced the belief of many in Russia, and among its friends abroad, that a better life requires more freedom, diversity, and dynamism.  Since you gave less emphasis to how Russia should achieve the lofty goals you set forth, we will offer a few suggestions in response to your gracious open invitation for ideas.

Denis Corboy is director of the Caucasus Policy Institute at Kings College London and was European Commission ambassador to Georgia and Armenia.  William Courtney was US ambassador to Kazakhstan and Georgia.  Kenneth Yalowitz is director of the Dickey Center for International Understanding at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H., and was US ambassador to Belarus and Georgia

Whatever path the country takes, Russia's history and traditions must be respected and built upon.  You are right to eschew "permanent revolution" and seek a considered, gradual reform process.  As you caution, and as Mikhail Gorbachev learned two decades ago, powerful internal forces will oppose change.  Building a broad and durable constituency for reform is essential.

Your overall direction is farsighted - Russia must modernize, and in doing so deepen its ties with the advanced democracies and in some areas emulate them.  Europe and America lack monopolies on ideas for reform but between their experiences and Russia's own, important lessons have been learned.  The most important is the value of open debate and competitive institutions.

You are right that Russia possesses enormous advantages, including "a huge territory, colossal natural wealth, substantial industrial potential, [and] an impressive list of brilliant achievements in the sphere of science, technology, education, and art."

These strengths will enhance productivity and the quality of life if they are invigorated by economic competition built on an open economic and political environment.  They will also require greater investments in health and education, a more equitable division of constitutional powers, and new ways to stimulate individual initiative.

Let us look at a few ideas as to how Russia can achieve these aims.

First, do not under-value "the habit of existing on raw materials exports, in effect exchanging these for finished products."  Russia will continue to accumulate wealth faster by developing its natural resources than by any other path.  But more competitive internal markets, diminished government control and subsidies, and sharply reduced corruption are vital enablers.

For example, breaking up Gazprom and Rosneft into smaller, competing units, and ending subsidized internal prices for energy, would lead to more efficient energy markets and higher productivity.  The new companies would generate far more savings and investment for growth than the two lumbering and wasteful giants ever could.

A challenge is to ensure that the returns from raw materials exports do not disappear into private foreign bank accounts, and that control of the new firms does not fall victim to Kremlin intrigues.  Depoliticizing the energy sector would also make Russia a more reliable energy supplier to Europe.

Second, you point to "age-old corruption that has drained Russia from time immemorial," because of "the excessive presence of the state in any remotely important sphere of economic or other social activity" and the chronic lack of initiative and technological innovation.

More "checks and balances" are the best way to reduce the heavy burden of corruption on Russian economic life.  Tools for doing this include effective legislative oversight of executive power, a free press which exposes corruption and governmental malfeasance, an independent judiciary which holds corrupt officials and business executives accountable, and independent non-governmental organizations (NGO's) which have specialized expertise and can educate and rally public opinion against corrupt practices.  These institutions and organizations "compete" against abuse of governmental power and against each other, lessening risks that watchdogs themselves could be corrupted.

Third, you called attention to demographic and health crises, including a declining population and virtual epidemics of cardiovascular disease, AIDS and TB.  These challenges may well prevent Russia from meeting your goals for labor supply and a healthy military corpus.

Solving these problems will require systemic changes in diet, lessening the scourges of alcohol and smoking, and improving primary medical care and prevention.  Demographics and disease are a greater threat to Russia than any external enemy.

Coercive, top-down approaches, as in the anti-alcohol campaign of the Gorbachev era, ought to be avoided.  Building wide public support will be critical.  Hence, the government should rely mainly on public education, open discussion, greater investment in the health sector, and reform in the delivery of medical care with a new emphasis on prevention.  

Greater openness to immigration from poorer neighboring countries is likely to be the only way a dynamic Russian economy can meet its labor needs.  It is time now to begin preparing your countrymen.  A continued pattern of overt, sometimes ugly, discrimination will only hurt Russia.

Fourth, you are right to call for legislation to "ensure comprehensive support for the spirit of innovation in all spheres of public life and the creation of a market in ideas, inventions, discoveries, and new technologies."  In Europe and America, generous government financing of research and development is paired with competitive, peer-reviewed mechanisms to allocate funding.  Keeping politics at bay in decision-making will help Russian science.

Equally important is an economy which can quickly apply the fruits of research and development in innovative ways.  For example, nanotechnology researchers probably never dreamed their labors would lead so quickly to a product with such world-wide market penetration as the iPod.

Fifth, your call for "competition among open political associations" is vitally important.  Independent political parties and free and fair elections would go a long way to enhance political stability, and lead to governments which expose and prosecute corruption irrespective of the political influence of perpetrators.  This is a great strength in the European and American political systems, buttressed by frequent alternations in political power.

Some in Russia equate competitive politics with the "chaos" of the 1990s, and even the "Time of Troubles" four centuries ago.  But history shows that political competition, as it develops, tends to marginalize extremist views.  This is sorely needed in Russia, as the wave of neo-Nazi criminal acts shows.  Competitive politics are what makes advanced democracies so stable.  Russians are well educated and more than ready for democracy.

Finally, you speak of doing "everything possible to normalize the life of people in the Russian Caucasus."  Calming tensions there will require a secure environment, political openness, and better economic opportunities.  Multi-candidate elections, security without abuses, and improved agriculture will help a lot.  Moscow city authorities should crack down on the harassment of people from the Caucasus and Central Asia who sell in farmers markets.

These are times of change in the world economy.  New creative and competitive energies will be released, and uneconomic activities will be punished by markets.  Economic and political reform can position Russia to take stronger advantage of the new opportunities.

America and Europe not only wish Russia well in its reform effort, but believe they have a stake in its success.  A secure and prosperous Russia will be less likely to have conflicts with its neighbors, and be a valued economic partner and source of innovation and ideas from which the whole world will benefit.  

Beware Russia’s three tinderboxes

Denis Corboy is director of the Caucasus Policy Institute at Kings College London and was European Commission ambassador to Georgia and Armenia. William Courtney was U.S. ambassador to Kazakhstan and Georgia. Kenneth Yalowitz is director of the Dickey Center for International Understanding at Dartmouth College and was U.S. ambassador to Belarus and Georgia.

The United States and Europe now face triple-barreled security challenges from Russia - its growing pressure on Georgia and Ukraine, and spiraling terrorism and repression in its Muslim-dominated North Caucasus region. Russia's muscular approach could ignite sparks in any one of the three confrontations, leading to  wider instability.  The West cannot stop Russia from harming itself, but it needs to prepare for and seek to avert dangerous Russian overreach.  The upcoming EU and G20 Summits should urgently address ways to do this.

The most serious Russian challenges in the near abroad are directed at Georgia and Ukraine, two countries which seek EU and NATO membership and have some form of democracy.

Russia continues to stoke tensions along the cease fire line of the August 2008 war in Georgia and its separatist regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Moscow refuses to comply with the ceasefire and is slowly annexing these regions. Prime Minister Putin recently visited Abkhazia and pledged hundreds of millions of dollars to bolster military and border facilities.

Russia is trying to provoke Ukrainian leaders, as they did Georgian leaders prior to the calamitous war against Georgia a year ago. On August 11, President Medvedev wrote Ukrainian President Yushchenko and smugly predicted that "new times will come,"a clear reference to Ukraine's presidential elections in January. Medvedev accused Ukraine's government of "distorting" history regarding Stalin's artificial famine in the early 1930s, and "obstructing" Russia's Black Sea Fleet, based in Sevastopol, in Ukraine's Crimean region. The Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church, a Kremlin favorite, recently provoked Ukrainians by asserting that they and Russians are "one and the same people." The Russians are also smarting over Ukraine's policies to promote use of Ukrainian language vice Russian.

Russia's overbearing tactics are often unproductive.  Its neighbors refuse to recognize the "independence" of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.  Belarus and Uzbekistan have declined to join a regional "rapid reaction" force to be based in Kyrgyzstan, and Belarus is seemingly more open to improved ties with the US and EU.  In April, Turkmenistan blamed Russia for a mysterious gas pipeline explosion and at long last pledged to ship gas through the planned, Western-backed Nabucco gas pipeline to Europe.

North Caucasus

Terrorism, repression, poverty, and clan rivalries in the Muslim North Caucasus pose the third challenge.  The brutal subjugation of Chechnya in two separatist wars since the early 1990s has caused widespread alienation.  Human rights activists, journalists, and political opponents of Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov are murdered with shocking frequency.  Attacks against police forces, known for corruption and torture of prisoners, are steadily mounting.  Spreading violence in Dagestan is particularly worrisome.  With two-and-one-half million residents from thirty-odd ethnic groups, it is much more populous than Chechnya and lies on Azerbaijan's northern border.

Moscow's appointed leader in Ingushetia, a former paratroop general, seems unable to quell violence.  Indeed, in June he was wounded in a terrorist attack.  After a suicide bomb attack this month in Nazran which claimed twenty-five lives, the Kremlin dispatched a battle-hardened KGB veteran to restore order.  Medvedev has called for terrorists to be "liquidated without emotion," and for an end to jury trials for them.

Yet he may recognize that force alone is not enough.  In an implicit rebuke to former President and now Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who has masterminded the second war in Chechnya which began in 1999, Medvedev lamented  that "some time ago we got the impression" that the terrorist situation in the Caucasus "had improved."  In fact, Russia's emplacement of local warlords in positions of control in the North Caucasus, allied with Russian security services, has made the region dangerously ungovernable with potentially disastrous consequences for the Russian Federation itself.

The immediate security concern for the West is Moscow's ambition for control over its neighbors and propensity to threaten or use force to get its way.  US and European leaders have already conveyed frank concerns to their Russian counterparts. Ill-considered use of force could spark wider conflagration.   As during the second Chechen war, Russia may charge that Georgia or Azerbaijan is aiding terrorists in the North Caucasus by not interdicting arms flows or by offering safe havens, and threaten to extend the hostilities into these countries.

What the West should do

A better institutional framework for security in Europe and Eurasia could help defuse strains.  A key hindrance is that the governing security architecture has not changed since the Yeltsin era, when Russia was less muscular and sought equality and democratic legitimacy.

Russia is now stronger and more assertive.  It has used its veto to impede the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe from fostering democracy in the East or criticizing official abuses in the North Caucasus, and to force an end to its mission in Georgia.  Moscow has also used its UN Security Council veto to oust UN peacekeeping monitors from Abkhazia.

In its dialogue with Russian leaders, NATO must address how to help Russia's neighbors abate threats and pressures and how to encourage Moscow to pursue peaceful accommodation in the North Caucasus.  Especially since state-controlled media constantly portray America and NATO as threats, the NATO-Russian Council will likely have limited utility.  Although Moscow now allows land transit of non-lethal items for NATO in Afghanistan, it has its own interests in defeating Islamic extremism and enhancing NATO dependence on Russia.

In Georgia, as in Kosovo earlier, the EU is taking over former OSCE roles which Russia has precluded.  The EU Monitoring Mission for Abkhazia and South Ossetia ought to be expanded to include US, Canadian and other participants.  More resources should be devoted to observing unfolding events in the North Caucasus and assessing their risks.

Georgia and other neighbors of Russia need to develop territorial defense strategies, with substantial training and advisory help.  Decisions on providing defensive military equipment should depend on military risk.

These steps could be accompanied by an offer to explore with Russia what it means by "privileged interests" in neighboring countries, how Russian activities accord with its OSCE obligations, and what security assistance NATO might provide should a neighboring country come under threat.  Transparency with Russia and its neighbors about Western policy is fundamental to building a more secure future.

To undergird a more effective security architecture, the EU and the US should increase programs to build democracy and promote inter-ethnic tolerance.  The EU should expand free trade and visa-free travel with key Eastern partners.  More international media attention should be given to the North Caucasus, Russia's neighbors, and Russia itself.

It will be difficult to help Russia deal more effectively with its own problems in the North Caucasus.  Russia needs new political, economic, and social strategies to address underlying problems.  In addressing violence in the North Caucasus, heads of state agreed in the 1999 OSCE Summit Declaration that it was "important to alleviate the hardships of the civilian population" and that a "political solution is essential."  These priorities are just as compelling today.  Europe and the US should exercise leadership in the EU and G20 meetings on aid to NGO's and humanitarian aid in the North Caucasus.

These actions, if carried out openly, will help Russia and its neighbors foster reform and political accommodation for a more secure future.  Georgia and Ukraine ought to take conciliatory steps as well.  They should exercise caution in taking actions which might provoke sharp Russian responses, such as interdicting ships bound for ports in Abkhazia or Russian military trucks traveling on public roads in Crimea.

When Russian forces alongside Chechen irregulars invaded Abkhazia in the early 1990s, Georgian leader Eduard Shevardnadze warned Russian President Yeltsin that igniting separatism in Georgia would come back to haunt Russia in the North Caucasus.  He was right.  The three tinderboxes pose new risks to Western security. They deserve new priority and a broader perspective to keep the peace.

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