The Times of London reports:
TONY BLAIR, George Bush and other Western leaders should publicly criticise Russian democratic failings when they attend the G8 summit in St Petersburg next month, the Kremlin’s main opponent said yesterday.
Mikhail Kasyanov, the former Prime Minister and a candidate for the Russian presidency in 2008, said that he feared for the country’s democratic future unless the leaders of the world’s richest countries spoke out.
“Russia should be treated and judged as a normal democratic country,” Mr Kasyanov told The Times. “The implementation of our constitution is unacceptable, dangerous, wrong. For politicians of other countries no more polite language should be found to express this idea.”
Dick Cheney, the US Vice-President, caused an uproar last month in Russia when he gave a speech in Lithuania castigating the Kremlin for backsliding on democracy and restricting the rights of its people.
Mr Kasyanov said: “What Cheney said was absolutely right. It was absolutely the wrong place and used the wrong format. It would be ideal (for G8 leaders to deliver the same message), not said as a lesson or in preaching manner, but to express disappointment.”
His remarks were in sharp contrast to those of Mikhail Gorbachev, the last Soviet leader, who told The Times at the weekend that it would be counter-productive for the West to meddle in Russian internal affairs during the summit.
In Western capitals there is alarm at the growing power of the Kremlin, the weakness of the Opposition and the diminishing rights of the individual, However, Russia’s democratic shortcomings have often taken a back seat to the importance of the country as a source of energy supplies to Western economies and as an ally in the fight against extremist Islam.
Mr Kasyanov, who traced Mr Putin’s “backsliding” on democracy to the aftermath of the Beslan school siege in September 2004, said that the real test would be the presidential elections in 2008.
Mr Putin is barred from standing for a third term, but Mr Kasyanov said that Kremlin insiders were putting pressure on him to stand anyway. “Certain circles in the new elite are eager for Putin to stand,” Mr Kasyanov said. “I do not think this is the main scenario. The President understands that this would be the beginning of another Cold War.”
Instead he predicted that a Kremlin candidate would be put forward with the full support of the State, including a monopoly of coverage in the state-controlled media, manipulation at the ballot box and intimidation of rivals.
Mr Kasyanov said that he already had very little access to television or newspapers. Even meetings at universities with students had been disrupted by bomb scares and threats to academic staff. He intends to get his message out on the internet and through campaigning across Russia but said that the key to a fair election would be the deployment of thousands of independent Russian and foreign election monitors.
Mr Kasyanov said that when he resigned from office two years ago he had intended to go into the private sector but that he had returned to public life because he feared that Russia’s future as a European, democratic state was under threat.
“I fear that if Russia stifles real democracy the country could be headed towards a revolution,” he said. “We had two of those in the last century. That was enough.”
In an editorial, the Times develops the theme further:
The jockeying now under way between armies of “sherpas” in preparation for next month’s G8 summit in St Petersburg will surely become a case study for aspiring diplomats. How do you fashion “agreement” at a meeting of the world’s eight leading industrialised democracies, when the host is scarcely a democracy and its relations with the other seven are at their lowest ebb for fifteen years? The answer: lower expecations by agreeing to disagree on every stubborn source of friction, from energy policy and Iran’s nuclear programme to the state of Russian civil society, then make a virtue of straight talk. The alternative of papering over the cracks in a damaged relationship with elegant but empty communiqués is simply too dangerous.
Shortly after the tragic deaths of 186 schoolchildren in the Beslan siege of September 2004, President Putin decisively tightened the Kremlin’s grip on Russian political life. He ended the free election of regional governors and raised the number of signatories required to found a new party from 10,000 to 50,000, in a system in which opposition voices were already effectively barred from national television. In the same period, Mr Putin has comprehensively blurred the distinction between state and private control of key economic assets by installing close aides on the governing boards of industrial behemoths such as Gazprom, Rosneft and TVEL, a nuclear fuel company whose new chairman is the President’s chief of staff.
There is a strong argument against the gratuitous needling of Russia’s fragile self-esteem. As Mikhail Gorbachev, the last Soviet leader, said in an interview in The Times yesterday, too much hectoring of the Kremlin only plays into the hands of nationalists.
There is also a case to be made for limited state ownership of certain “strategic” industries, if only because the free-for-all of Russia’s early privatisations so discredited the concept of market-led reform among ordinary citizens. But Mr Putin cannot use the principle of non-interference in other countries’ affairs to mask the freezing of all progress towards democracy. Nor can his promotion of “national champions” in the oil and gas industries be taken at face value if their real purpose is the enrichment of a new cadre of oligarchs.
Any residual faith in Mr Putin’s good intentions will hardly be boosted by the blunt analysis of Mikhail Kasyanov, his former Prime Minister, on which we report today. Russia is probably more corrupt today than in the nadir of the Yeltsin era, and the 2008 presidential election will be a mere formality for Mr Putin’s annointed successor, Mr Kasyanov argues. As a scapegoat for failed reforms that briefly dented the President’s popularity, Mr Kasyanov may have an axe to grind. But his pessimism is plausible.
If Russian oil giants want to raise money on the world’s financial markets, they should expect relentless scrutiny of their balance sheets. And if Mr Putin wants his successor to inherit his place at the G8, he should expect healthy criticism of his flawed policies.
La Russophobe can’t but be amazed by the statement: “There is a strong argument against the gratuitous needling of Russia’s fragile self-esteem.” Are Russians really such crybabies that they might engage in conduct dangerous to world security and risk their own destruction just because they don’t get the right tender words of encouragement from the West? If so, how can such a nation possibly ever be considerd anything other than an enemy, excluded from any genuine participation in the world economy and ultimately consigned to the dustbin of history?