If the U.S. Can't Engage Russia Culturally, Maybe Through Trade

pussy riot article.jpg
German protestors rally on behalf of the Russian punk group Pussy Riot, whose members were recently sentence to two years in prison for "hooliganism." (AP)

The plight of three members of the Russian punk band Pussy Riot has received widespread international attention. The young women were given two-year jail terms last week for "hooliganism motivated by religious hatred" after they performed a profane anti-Putin "punk prayer" in front of the altar of Moscow's main cathedral several months ago.

Many supporters, including musicians such as Madonna and Paul McCartney, have joined demonstrations and appealed for their release. The Obama administration and other Western governments have called the sentences disproportionate.

The Russian government, however, has denounced the criticism as politically motivated. A Russian spokesman said in a statement, "The case has served only as an occasion for the latest wave of rushed, biased, and politically charged evaluations." In a show of contempt, a Russian embassy official in Washington, DC, dumped 70,000 petitions gathered by Amnesty International on the curb.

"It seems that what is important to certain human rights structures and media outlets is not so much the fate of these young women as the opportunity to create yet another scandal on anti-Russian grounds," Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich said.

Ironically, the Russian government is itself responsible for turning the group into an international cause célèbre. Scarcely known before their blasphemy trial, the band members (two of whom have young children) are now garnering sympathy at home as well as abroad.

Of course, many Russians fault the group for offending Russian Orthodox Christians and recent polls have shown widespread disapproval of the band's actions. But the overreaction of the Russian state to the small provocation is overly harsh and the mounting international attention and criticism has worried the regime.

Thus the Russian government's resorting to claims of demonization and victimization by the West. "This situation, without a doubt, has elements of a clash of civilizations," Lukashevich said in his statement.

A clash of civilizations? More likely a clash of old vs. new, tradition vs. modernity, intelligentsia vs. the masses, and oppression vs. freedom in Russia itself.

Indeed, on the same day the Russian government was condemning the West, Russia formally joined the WTO after years of negotiations. This development, resisted by Russia for decades, means that the country will be more closely integrated into the international economy.

It may seem paradoxical, in light of the Putin regime's authoritarian tendencies, but such inclusion is to be welcomed. The Obama administration was right to criticize the disproportionate punishment of Pussy Riot, and it also should press for Congress to approve permanent normal trade relations with Russia and repeal the dated Jackson-Vanik law (which restricts imports and exports). Now that Russia is in the WTO, normalized relations would allow increased U.S. exports and better access to Russian markets.

Importantly, increased trade and investment would also permit more influence and leverage over Russia. Closer links to the West would also be beneficial for the Russian people, opening the Russian economy and encouraging change.

As Secretary Clinton noted in an op-ed, "By extending those trading relations, we can create new markets for our people and support the political and economic changes that Russia's people are demanding. These reforms will ultimately make Russia a more just and open society as well as a better partner over the long term for the U.S."

Engagement with Russia, and criticism when merited--especially regarding human rights and freedom of expression--can and should go hand in hand. If Russia drifts farther away from the West, then the clash of civilizations that the Russian foreign ministry darkly alluded to may become more of a reality.

This article originally appeared at CFR.org, an Atlantic partner site.

The country's harsh treatment of performance art group Pussy Riot has created tensions with the West, but the World Trade Organization might be an avenue for cooperation.