The US presidential elections have reached fever pitch. The Republican elephant and the Democrat donkey are making use of any arguments that can influence the impressionable American public, including the Russia factor.
On Thursday, the US House Committee on International Relations adopted, without much debate, a resolution calling on President Bush to take measures to exclude Russia from the G8. This brought an Arctic cold to the spring warmth, and not only because the authors of the appeal are resorting to Cold War methods. The thing is that a similar draft resolution had been suggested last winter, immediately after the parliamentary elections in Russia.
The neo-conservative politicians in the USA were shocked by their results: the Kremlin got a constitutional majority and the liberal parties did not win seats in the State Duma (the lower chamber of parliament). They interpreted this as a sign of the curtailment of democracy in Russia and a prelude to a growth of aggressive imperial trends in Moscow's foreign policy. The advocates of the December draft resolution saw Russia's future in an alarming, impenetrable shadow.
The USA must not stand on one side of the crawling revolt launched in Russia against the forces of democracy and the market economy, they said. In their opinion, the new authoritarianism in Russia is a fundamental challenge to US interests in Eurasia.
It is interesting that those alarmist sentiments soon evaporated, thanks to the energetic efforts of the US administration. US Ambassador to Moscow Alexander Vershbow described that initiative of the Congressmen as "inadequate." In describing the G8 as a vital mechanism in the struggle against such types of global evil as terrorism, weapons of mass destruction and AIDS, Vershbow praised Russia as a key world power and a vital partner of the USA in the struggle against these threats. Moreover, the ambassador said that the logic of Russia's economic development underlined the importance of its involvement in G8.
Barely three months have passed and a new resolution in the old spirit sailed through the House committee controlled by the ruling party. Its authors are Republican Congressmen Thomas Lantos and Christopher Cox. The White House, whose benevolence made the adoption of the resolution possible, has not protested.
There are three reasons for this u-turn in the mood at the Washington top: election ratings, ratings and ratings. Nothings brings the presidential candidate closer to the US public, frightened by terrorism and deafened with explosions in Iraq, as a bawled order to a foreign culprit (Russia, this time). Our country is strong and the hand of our president is firm, sighs the public happily.
The image of a strategic partner can be sacrificed if this will bring a few points in the next opinion poll.
It is interesting that Democrats acted unexpectedly with regard to this Russophobic move from Republicans. Democratic flag-bearer John Kerry, who used to criticise the president for excessive rapprochement with the authoritarian Russia, is now criticising Bush for wrecking relations with Russia by keeping Russian companies out of Iraqi contracts.
In a way, the donkey is acting wiser than the elephant. Democrats are using the same slogan to hit at the foreign policy stand of their opponents and demonstrate their own readiness to view Russia as a partner that suits the USA on all counts.
Moscow is watching these election games in the USA with a mixed feeling of deja vu, irony and boredom. Russia's new foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, said in Berlin that the resolution of the House committee on international relations was "not very serious." Konstantin Kosachev, head of the State Duma international affairs committee, discerned in it "a misunderstanding" of the international mission of the G8 and the criteria that determine the participation of the leading world states in this unofficial organisation.
Indeed, Russia did not become a member of the group because somebody in the West wanted it, but because the group felt incomplete without Russia and praised the share of responsibility which Russia had assumed in the struggle against global threats.
The resolution of US Congress is certainly a passing episode in bilateral relations. However, we must not underestimate the negative and possibly provocative effect it may have on the internal situation in Russia. The mixed team of Russian nationalists and xenophobes saw a kind of a political manifesto in the US Congress resolution.
Hardly had the news agencies reported the results of voting in the House committee when a prominent nationalist Russian TV commentator called on the USA to exclude Russia from G8 without delay. "It would be the best thing the West could do for us," he said. "This would dramatically reduce the influence of the pro-Western lobby, which is looking for the last crumbs they can sell abroad."
Congressmen Lantos and Cox hardly foresaw this side effect of their magnum opus.