But is Russia democratic?

A Kremlin public-relations blitz ahead of the Group of Eight (G8) summit and an apparent softening of Washington’s stance have failed to disguise an ill-tempered debate gnawing at the heart of East-West relations: is Russia democratic?

By some counts, cooperation between Russia and its G8 partners is in rude health ahead of the Saint Petersburg summit starting on Saturday. Positions are increasingly close on Iran and North Korea, while Russia looks set soon to enter the World Trade Organisation.

But when it comes to democracy — supposedly one of the G8’s key principles — Moscow and the Western capitals sound as if they inhabit different planets.

”What do you mean by democracy? That is a philosophical question to which there is no one answer,” President Vladimir Putin told United States television network NBC, according to a transcript provided by the Kremlin.

Many Western leaders, as well as human rights organisations in Russia, accuse Putin of having crippled political opposition, muzzled the media, curbed NGOs and allowed sickening human rights abuses in Chechnya.

”President Putin has steered Russia away from democracy and toward authoritarianism,” four powerful US lawmakers, including Republican Senator John McCain, wrote last month in a letter urging President George Bush to rebuke Putin at the Saint Petersburg summit.

Yet the Kremlin angrily replies that it has nothing to learn from the West.

In an interview with France’s TF1 television aired on Wednesday, Putin compared Western pressure for ”democratisation” to European colonialists a century ago spreading ”civilisation”.

He lashed out at the decision of the British ambassador to Russia and two senior US State Department officials to attend a rare forum of opposition figures in Moscow this week.

”I think these constant criticisms on democracy and press freedom are an instrument for interfering in Russia’s internal and foreign policies,” Putin said in remarks broadcast on Canada’s CTV television. ”If officials from other countries support this kind of event that means that they are trying in a certain way to influence the internal balance of power in Russia.”

One of Putin’s closest advisers, Kremlin deputy administration head Vladislav Surkov, even says that Russia should be credited for bringing democracy to former Soviet Bloc countries in eastern Europe.

Most analysts believe the democracy debate will be more irritant than spoiler at the G8 summit.

Bush indicated in an interview this week that he would not give Putin the pounding many in Washington want to see.

”Nobody either wants to be lectured by somebody, nobody, either, likes to be scolded publicly,” the US president told CNN.

But the accusation that Russia is sliding back into its undemocratic past lies at the heart of continued East-West mistrust and is likely to linger long after Putin’s G8 partners fly home.

”Relations with other countries will not worsen because of Russian democracy — they are already difficult,” Moscow Carnegie Centre analyst Masha Lipman said. ”We no longer even try to pretend that everything is OK between us.” — Sapa-AFP

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Sebastian Smith
Sebastian Smith
AFP White House correspondent. Previously Rio, NYC, Moscow, Tbilisi, London, Paris -- and a couple years at sea.

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