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President Bush’s Visit to Russia Highlights Concerns About Russian Democracy

July 14, 2006 at 6:30 PM EST
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SIMON MARKS, NewsHour Special Correspondent: Presidents Bush and Putin met one another for dinner in St. Petersburg tonight, the formal start of a weekend that will see bilateral U.S.- Russian talks taking place alongside the wider G-8 summit.

When they speak on background, U.S. officials say the White House is concerned over Russia’s backsliding on democracy. But publicly, they hesitate to use that terminology, insisting that President Bush will make candid representations to the Russian leader, but only behind firmly closed doors.

GEORGE W. BUSH, President of the United States: My own view of dealing with President Putin though is that nobody really likes to be lectured a lot. And if you want to be an effective person, what you don’t go is scold the person publicly all the time, that, you know, you remind him where we may have a difference of opinion, but you do so in a respectful way, so you can then sit down and have a constructive dialogue.

SIMON MARKS: The White House has not always opted for that kind of soft approach. Just two months ago, Vice President Dick Cheney infuriated Moscow during a visit to the formerly Soviet Baltic nation of Lithuania. He rounded on Russia for briefly halting gas supplies to neighboring Ukraine, an economic dispute in which he accused Moscow of acting like a schoolyard bully.

RICHARD CHENEY, Vice President of the United States: Actions by the Russian government have been counterproductive and could begin to affect relations with other countries.

No legitimate interest is served when oil and gas become tools of intimidation or blackmail, either by supply manipulation or attempts to monopolize transportation. And no one can justify actions that undermine the territorial integrity of a neighbor.

SIMON MARKS: This week, President Putin hit back in a deeply personal manner. In an interview with NBC’s Matt Lauer, he equated the vice president’s comments with his hunting accident earlier this year.

VLADIMIR PUTIN, President of Russia (through translator): I think your vice president’s expression there is like his bad shot on his hunting trip. I believe that the concerns do not look sincere, and therefore they are not convincing.

Economic power and state control

SIMON MARKS: The Russians deny using natural resources to try and revive their great power status. But the rising price of oil -- Russia has vast, unexploited reserves of it -- has left Moscow, in the words of one U.S. official, "drowning in money."

That wealth has brought a newly muscular approach that has seen the Kremlin impervious to U.S. criticism of Moscow's rollback on democracy.

LILIA SHEVTSOVA, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace: Things are not very good; things are much worse than we have anticipated at the beginning of the year.

SIMON MARKS: Putin biographer Lilia Shevtsova argues the Russian president is using his economic muscle on the world stage to try and defuse the critique of his policies at home.

LILIA SHEVTSOVA: They would like to offer the West a kind of a deal. "You folks," Putin says, "do not criticize us for how we rule Russia and for how we perceive your democratic values, and you also recognize our right to have an influence in the former Soviet space. In this case, we are going to be your loyal partners, and in this case you can rely on us in the energy issue."

So this is the proposed deal, and my hunch is that apparently the West is going to take this new, real politik version.

SIMON MARKS: Some Russians are urging President Bush not to take that deal. They accuse Vladimir Putin of an increasingly authoritarian streak.

In the past year, the Kremlin has consolidated its dominance of the Russian media; all three national TV networks are now effectively under full state control.

It's moved to curtail the activities of nongovernmental organizations, like those monitoring elections, human rights and the environment. A new law allows the government to monitor their finances and suspend their operations if they "threaten Russia's sovereignty."

The Russian leader acknowledged this week the law has shortcomings, but he's expressed no similar regrets over the scrapping of Russia's gubernatorial elections. The governors of Russia's regions are now appointed by the Kremlin.

And in an echo of the Soviet era, when U.S.-funded broadcasts were jammed by Moscow, just this month the Russians ordered dozens of regional radio stations to take Voice of America, Radio Free Europe, and Radio Liberty Russian-language programming off-the-air, a move the U.S. is set to protest.

VLADIMIR RYZHKOV, Independent Russian Lawmaker: Putin is autocrat, and Putin is opponent of democracy.

SIMON MARKS: Vladimir Ryzhkov is one of the last remaining independent members of the Russian parliament, the Duma.

VLADIMIR RYZHKOV: Putin destroyed all cornerstones of democracy in Russia. He destroyed checks and balances. He destroyed independent parliament. He created one-party system. He's destroying federalism. And he's destroying nongovernmental organizations.

So Russia is now a petro-nuclear state. We have only two things now: We have petroleum, and we have nuclear warheads. And I am very sad that some Western leaders still support this system.

SIMON MARKS: Russia's beleaguered democracy activists are divided. Some urge the Bush administration to boycott the G-8 summit, a call also made by Arizona Republican Senator John McCain.

But others argue that the summit offers a unique opportunity for Western leaders to buttonhole Vladimir Putin over the state of democracy in Russia and over his approach to foreign policy, which has left Russia and the U.S. at odds over Iran and North Korea.

IRINA KHAKAMADA, People's Democratic Union: It's a very good sign that summit of G-8 takes the place in St. Petersburg than Moscow.

And it is very important to have a special message to President Putin from President Bush about the level of democratic development in the Russia, because G-8, it is the club of the very high-developed democratic countries. And now I think all that we have built in Russia, that is not a real democracy.

SIMON MARKS: For Vladimir Putin, the next few days also represent an opportunity: It's the first time Russia has hosted a G-8 summit, an event that comes less than 10 years after the Clinton administration encouraged Russian involvement in what was then the Group of Seven.

Despite critics at home and abroad who argue Russia's economy is so small and its democracy so emasculated that it shouldn't even be in the G-8, Vladimir Putin this week called Russia a "natural participant." And in a further echo of Soviet-era rhetoric, he described as "absolutely unacceptable" any attempt by Russia's international partners to intervene in what he called the "country's internal affairs."

JIM LEHRER: Ray Suarez has more.

Russia as a member of the G-8

RAY SUAREZ: Two views now on Russia hosting the G-8 meeting.

Michael McFaul is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and a professor at Stanford University. He returned today from Moscow, where he attended opposition conferences on the G-8.

Veronika Krasheninnikova is president of the Council for Trade and Economic Cooperation, a non-government Russian group that supports investments between the U.S. and Russia. She also represents the city of St. Petersburg, where the summit is held.

And, Ms. Krasheninnikova, let me start with you. The G-7 was started as an association of advanced industrial countries, democracies. Does Russia belong in the G-8?

VERONIKA KRASHENINNIKOVA, President, Council for Trade and Economic Cooperation: Well, Russia can finally belong to the G-8. It couldn't probably belong when it was accepted by the major parameters, but it does today, certainly.

RAY SUAREZ: And why do you say that? What's changed since the country was invited in and it became the G-8 in the 1990s? What's changed that affirms Russia's presence there now?

VERONIKA KRASHENINNIKOVA: Russia today has grown into a major international actor. It has an economy growing at a higher rate than any other Western economy. It has the best performing stock market in the world. It has the third biggest central bank reserves.

The standards of living of Russian people continuingly increase, and Russia has a role to play in major world problems, such as terrorism, such as non-proliferation, and in the most volatile regions of the world.

RAY SUAREZ: Michael McFaul, does Russia belong in the G-8?

MICHAEL MCFAUL, Senior Fellow, Hoover Institution: No, I don't think it does. It doesn't mean that I think one should kick them out of the G-8 now, but if you ask analytically, does Russia meet the criteria of the other G-7 countries? There's no way you can answer it in the affirmative.

On the economy, Russia's economy is the 11th-largest economy. A lot of other countries should get in before them then. China most certainly should be in.

If you do it as a GDP per capita, which is a better measure of Russia's wealth, they're 59th ranked in the world. Portugal should be at the meeting instead of Russia, if it's by that criteria.

If you do it in terms of economic growth, there are lots of countries growing faster than Russia.

And even in the post-Soviet space -- I think people don't understand this -- if you go from 1999 to now, Russia ranks 13th in terms of the fastest growing, only ahead of Moldova and Kyrgyzstan. Even for Ukraine, which has had lots of political instability in that last six years, has a higher rate of growth among the post-Soviet countries.

When you turn to the political side, it's obvious: Russia is not a democracy. All other G-7 countries are.

The question of Russia's democracy

RAY SUAREZ: Veronika Krasheninnikova, is Russia a democracy?

VERONIKA KRASHENINNIKOVA: Russia will be democratic because the Russian people needs it to be a democracy, not because some foreign country needs it. If there is one nation that suffered from the totalitarian regime, it is the Russian and Soviet people.

Now, of course we have a number of problems on the way. We all agree on the fundamental principles of democracy. But when they are implemented on the Russian historical ground and in the Russian system of values, they will necessarily take specific -- they will have their specifics. And that is the only way it can function in Russian.

RAY SUAREZ: But if we look at the state of Russia in the late '90s and look at it 10 years later, today, are things moving in the right direction? We heard in Simon Marks' report before our conversation that, in fact, more power has been concentrated in the Russian presidency. There is very little opposition left in the Duma, very little regional autonomy left, as that power was taken away by the president.

Is Russia a democracy in the same way that other members of the G-8 are?

VERONIKA KRASHENINNIKOVA: Well, in the definition of democracy is the government by the people, for the people, then what we had in the '90s did not represent any criteria of that definition. It was a government by oligarchs in their personal material interests, and the public good was nowhere in the picture.

Let's take freedom of press and television in particular. During the '90s, mid-'90s, the entire Russian population was taken hostage in a fight between two television channels, belonging to two oligarchs, who were fighting either between them or worked together with the power when it was necessary to promote their interests. So I don't think that you would define the state in Russia in the '90s as a democracy.

A "natural partner" of the G-8?

RAY SUAREZ: Professor McFaul, President Putin called Russia a "natural partner" of the G-8 and has been talking a lot about the tremendous contribution that Russia makes to the energy security of Western Europe. Does that give it a place in this club of advanced democracies?

MICHAEL MCFAUL: No, I don't think it does. This club is not about that. By that criteria, then we should invite Saudi Arabia, which plays a much more important role in a world economy, in terms of energy security.

Let's remember why Russia was brought into the G-8 originally. The idea was Russia was on the road to democracy and capitalism. And by providing this club, this entrance, it will help to encourage them to go along that path.

And I think now, retrospectively, that strategy -- I supported it at the time, by the way -- but that strategy didn't work. Russia now is moving in an autocratic direction. It's not about -- in the long run, I agree with your other guest. In the long run, I'm very optimistic that Russia is going to be a democratic country.

But if we look at in the last six years under Mr. Putin, it's obvious that every major political reform that he has done has been in an anti-democratic direction. In fact, I can't think of a single reform that he's done that you would call, "Oh, that's on the road to democracy."

And therefore, why continue to pretend that Russia is an advanced industrialized democracy?

RAY SUAREZ: Well, you were at these meetings of NGOs, non-governmental organizations, Russian civil society. You saw some people arrested by the police at those meetings, didn't you?

MICHAEL MCFAUL: I did. There were people arrested who tried to get to the meeting. I talked to many of them and asked what the circumstances were, and there was no explanation for why they were arrested.

And then, literally in the middle of this meeting, in a Western hotel, by the way, with members of foreign governments, former members of the Russian government -- former Prime Minister Kasyanov was there, many senior government, former government officials -- four young kids were arrested, just taken away.

And as we, the Westerners, watching this were talking among ourselves, some of them who were veterans who had worked in the Soviet system, it really reminded us of a darker period.

And I think that's really -- that's the story of the G-8, if you will. Why, in God's name, is that happening, if Russia and Mr. Putin wants to be legitimated and given the kind of credentials of being a major political figure in the G-8?

RAY SUAREZ: Well, what about that, Ms. Krasheninnikova?

VERONIKA KRASHENINNIKOVA: What about that precisely?

RAY SUAREZ: The arrests from the other Russian meeting, attempts by Russian civil society outside of government organizations to say, just as the G-8 meeting was starting, "We don't support this president, and we don't support his authorities"?

VERONIKA KRASHENINNIKOVA: I think there were different groups of people around that event, and some were moved by different purposes, not so much building a healthy, civil society. So I cannot authoritatively speak about that situation, where I wasn't.

Now, if you talk about democracy to the Russians, you have to put it in the Russian terms, if you want to be understood. And the key elements in the Russian system of values and what they expect from their state is justice, is stability and order.

You can easily understand the Russians who are tired of the chaos that they've lived through in the past 15 years, during the '90s and, frankly speaking, during the entire 20th century.

Whereas in this country the political system was set once and remained in place for 230 years, in Russia, just during the 20th century, the political order changed three times, from monarchy to communism to developing, I would say, democracy.

And people suffered on every level, because it was not only the political layer that changed, but all practical aspects of their lives, social, welfare, medical system, education. And they had to review who they are and what their purpose in the general life is.

So it is understandable that the Russians want stability. However, order and stability do not contradict freedoms; order and stability is the framework in which the Russians could exercise their freedoms.

RAY SUAREZ: Veronika Krasheninnikova, Michael McFaul, thank you, both.