U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice made some rather interesting comments in a press roundtable today after concluding meetings with Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergey Lavrov and Minister of Defense Anatoliy Serdyukov. Rice is in Moscow with Defense Secretary Robert Gates to discuss Iran, missile defense, and other matters. She also met with eight human rights activists at the U.S. ambassador’s residence this morning, prompting the following exchanges with the press [emphasis added]:
QUESTION: […] Do you — can you give us any sense of how they respond [to U.S. concerns about human rights] and whether over time you think that they have gotten any more sympathetic to your concerns or whether over time they perhaps, you know, have gotten less sympathetic and have had less of an ear for what they might regard as American interference?
SECRETARY RICE: You know, it never takes that tone or character. I think we’re beyond the time when we’re told to mind our own business. I, frankly, haven’t encountered that tone in any of these conversations. They do talk about their own history. They talk about their own evolution. They talk about the fact that this is 15 years in the making, that it’s not a very old system, trying to find its way toward democracy.
But I’ve continued to make what I think are the essential points. There are issues of human rights and we’ve been concerned and I’ve talked a good deal about the problems of individuals, journalists and others, who have had difficulty. But there are also institutional issues, issues about the — in a presidential system not having strong institutions, countervailing institutions, to the presidency. And I’ve been very open about the concerns that that raises in any country, not just in Russia but in any country. If you don’t have countervailing institutions, then the power of any one president is problematic for democratic development.
QUESTION: Can you talk about your meeting with the Prime Minister, the new Prime Minister, I mean your impression of him? He was a fairly unknown entity in the agency.
SECRETARY RICE: […] I found him competent, on top of his brief this morning. We went through a number of issues. He was very focused on prime ministerial kinds of issues. We talked a good deal about the WTO, about economic relations. I raised, and as I said talked at some length, about issues of institutional development in Russia, democratic institutional development in Russia. But you know, I found him —
QUESTION: What was his response to that?
SECRETARY RICE: Well, he — you know, he talked about the fact that this is a young — I mean, it’s not that long since the revolution and — or since — yeah, since the revolution of 1991, and so forth. But again, I talked — I tend with the Russians to talk a lot about what I see as institutional deficiencies because that’s really the issue here is: Is this country going to have countervailing institution to the presidency?
QUESTION: You mean the parliament, the courts?
SECRETARY RICE: Mm-hmm. Parliament, the court, independent media, civil society. I think it’s extremely important, as all of us have done throughout secretaries of state coming here and even presidents, to raise individual cases of people who have been mistreated or cases of unresolved disappearances or murders or whatever. Those are very important to raise.
Ultimately, democratic guarantees come from institutional development. Democratic governance comes from a president who can never be too strong because there will always be a congress or a parliament to check him or her, because there will be an independent media to shed light on what is going on. Now, we did have in one case a kind of interesting discussion of how the Internet will be a source from which people will get their information globally, not — and so one wonders to the degree that you even control the media how well you’ll be able to control information in the long run. […]
QUESTION: Is the Russian presidency too strong, in your view, as currently constituted?
SECRETARY RICE: I’ve said that I think there’s too much concentration of power in the Kremlin. And I’ve told the Russians that. I’ve said it publicly before. Because it’s just the absence of — I think everybody has doubts about the independence, full independence, of the judiciary, although at certain levels — I think — I can’t remember the numbers now, but Russian citizens almost always win against the government when they go to the judiciary, so it’s not — it’s not widespread, but on a lot of very high-profile cases I think there are questions about the independence of the judiciary. There are clearly questions about the independence of the electronic media and there are I think questions about the strength of the Duma.
After reading this, I immediately felt a smart-ass comment coalescing in my brain (this is quite normal for me, by the way, so don’t worry), something about a pot and a kettle, I think. But then I thought a bit more about the words she used: “I’ve been very open about the concerns that that raises in any country, not just in Russia but in any country. If you don’t have countervailing institutions, then the power of any one president is problematic for democratic development.”
In any country? Dare I speculate, hers included? Could it be (to speculate further) that for this career Sovietologist, Putin’s Kremlin acts as a kind of psychological stand-in for the White House, allowing her to criticize the “unitary executive” theory that drives and legitimizes the Bush administration’s deliberate and aggressive concentration of power, without being forced to confront the fact that she works for the administration and is thus effectively a supporter of this very theory? If so, what demons of cognitive dissonance must she wrestle to the ground every morning before being ready to come to work?
Cure her of that.
Canst thou not minister to a mind diseased,
Pluck from the memory a rooted sorrow,
Raze out the written troubles of the brain
And with some sweet oblivious antidote
Cleanse the stuff’d bosom of that perilous stuff
Which weighs upon the heart?
Therein the patient
Must minister to himself.
– William Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Act V, Scene III