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Commentary: If West could talk to Russia's people

by on March 27, 2014 10:10 AM

This week, the leaders of the world’s seven largest industrial economies did a relatively easy thing. And it made them feel pretty good about themselves. Even though they knew it was unlikely to produce a positive outcome in a world that has mindlessly backed itself into a Cold War and is on the brink of slipping into a hot one.

They booted Russia, the once-again militaristic bully, out of their exclusive club, the former G-8 that is now once again a slimmer G-7.

But next week, these same leaders have a new chance to complete what should always have been a two-step process. They can do something that is bold, visionary and straight-forward — and absolutely unprecedented. Also something that just might produce a positive outcome in Russia, for a change.

This is a moment when the G-7 leaders may be able to actually harness the power of public opinion in Russia — and energize it into a force of logic that even a strongman like Vladimir Putin may understand.

It is time for the leaders of the United States, Canada, Britain, Germany, France, Italy and Japan to take the unprecedented step of reaching out, directly and personally, to the Russian people. It is time for the G-7 leaders to deliver to Russia’s citizens a message of straight-talk, common sense, candor, respect and hope — concepts that are quite foreign in the slog of international diplomacy. Which is why it just might work.

Because journalism is not the medium of the diplomatic pouch, I’m going to explain this idea by covering it the way journalists around the world would report what happened. Because this report is being written for U.S. newspapers, it will begin in the traditional America-centric way.

Dateline: Washington, April 5, 2014:

“In an unprecedented synchronized diplomatic effort, President Obama and the other leaders of the G-7 industrialized nations reached out to the Russian people, delivering simultaneous identical speeches urging Russia to return to the ‘path of prosperity’ President Vladimir Putin had originally charted to showcase Russia as ‘productive and trustworthy partner in the global economy.’

“At noon, Greenwich Meridian Time, each G-7 leader posted on the Internet (via Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Vimeo and other social media sites) videos of themselves delivering identical speeches to the Russian people, spoken in their own languages and translated into Russian subtitles.

“The G-7 leaders talked with rare candor to the Russian people, praising policies and progress of Russia’s leaders yet also warning that Russia’s military response to the crisis in Ukraine risks undoing Putin’s best economic plans.

“President Obama and the other G-7 leaders told the people of Russia:

“‘Your proud nation has arrived at a crucial economic crossroads. Fortunately, the decision can be up to you — and your ability to convince your leaders of your wishes for Russia to return to its progressive path toward proving itself a trusted and valued member of the global economy.

“‘Your leaders had wisely charted a course that was to culminate with two grand global events in Sochi. The first was your successful 2014 Winter Olympics. The second was supposed to have been Russia’s hosting in Sochi of our conference of G-8 nations. It would have showcased Russia’s emergence as a powerful, trusted partner in the global economy.

“‘But unfortunately, Russia undid all that with a military response to the upheaval in Ukraine. Now you and your leaders must choose your future path. Will Russia travel a road to unprecedented prosperity for you, your children and your grandchildren? Or will Russia stay on its new path of military threats against neighbors, a road that can only lead to economic isolation and missed opportunities for Russia’s citizens?

“‘Frankly, I have seen how the people’s voice has shaped policies in my country. We hope Russia’s people will choose the path of prosperity through responsible partnership in the global economy. And we hope Russia’s leaders will hear and heed the voice of their people.’”

In 2002, the last Soviet president, Mikhail Gorbachev, talked with me about the importance of keeping weapons of mass destruction out of terrorists’ hands. Gorbachev said ordinary people understand this — and urged the world’s people to lead their leaders to do the right thing.

Twelve years later, another Russian president stands a historic crossroads. Once again, we must hope the people will lead their leader to make the right choice.



Martin Schram is a veteran Washington journalist, author and TV documentary executive. His column is distributed by McClatchy-Tribune News Service. Email him at martin.schram@gmail.com.
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