Russia's Veto On Zimbabwe Is No Surprise

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Despite the indignation and cries of broken promises voiced by U.S. and British diplomats over Moscow's veto of UN sanctions against Zimbabwe, the Russian decision should have come as no surprise.

Moscow and Beijing used their vetoes Friday in the United Nations Security Council to derail an arms embargo and financial and travel restrictions on President Robert Mugabe and his inner circle.

Mugabe -- who has ruled Zimbabwe since its independence in 1980 -- won an uncontested second round of elections on June 27. Between the two rounds, he initiated a campaign of intimidation in which dozens of opposition supporters were killed.

Washington and London attacked Moscow over its veto, claiming that it undermined Moscow's credibility as a Group of Eight partner. In an unusually harsh statement, the U.S. ambassador to the UN, Zalmay Khalilzad, accused Medvedev of breaking a promise made at a G8 summit earlier in the week and of "standing with Mugabe against the people of Zimbabwe."

"The U-turn in the Russian position is particularly surprising and disturbing ... [and] raises questions about its reliability as a G8 partner," Khalilzad said.

British Foreign Secretary David Miliband echoed Khalilzad's remarks.

At the summit last Tuesday, Medvedev had supported a G8 decision to impose "financial and other measures" against Zimbabwean officials responsible for the violence. He only signed onto the declaration after much hesitancy, and he told reporters that the measures might not be sanctions.

Russia fired back by noting that the G8 declaration did not mention any UN sanctions, so Medvedev could not be accused of backtracking.

Indeed, Medvedev could not have possibly supported the idea of the UN Security Council imposing sanctions over elections in Zimbabwe or any other country. Declaring UN sanctions over elections would set a precedent that Moscow has no desire to see established, given its own record in conducting elections, not to mention the record of its allies.

Zimbabwe might not be a key ally of Russia's, but Russia would face a far tougher problem if Western democracies decided at some point to impose sanctions over elections in a country where Russia's interests are much more formidable, such as Turkmenistan or Uzbekistan, both ruled by authoritarian leaders.

Therefore, Russia will not support a precedent as long as it continues to pursue its own model of a "sovereign democracy," where there is no real competition in national elections. Whether such a state should belong to a club such as the G8, whose members are not only wealthy but also share democratic values, is an open question.

Hopefully, Russia will eventually abandon this model and pursue real democratic change.