U.S. Warns Russia to Act More Like A Democracy
St. Petersburg Hosts G-8 Summit in July
The Bush administration has warned Russia that the upcoming summit of the Group of Eight nations in St. Petersburg could be a debacle unless the Kremlin takes specific actions in the coming weeks to demonstrate a commitment to democracy, according to U.S. officials.
The administration has privately identified to Moscow concrete steps it should take before the July meeting, such as registering civil society groups that have been harassed, as a way of deflecting criticism that Russia has no business hosting a summit of democratic nations. And administration officials have sharpened their rhetoric about Russia's backslide toward autocracy.
At a European democracy conference in Lithuania yesterday, Vice President Cheney accused Russia of "unfairly and improperly" restricting the rights of its people and using oil and gas as "tools of intimidation or blackmail" against neighboring countries.
"Russia has a choice to make," Cheney said. "And there is no question that a return to democratic reform in Russia will generate further success for its people and greater respect among fellow nations."
Administration officials are increasingly concerned about President Bush's attending a meeting of the world's major democracies in a country that by most definitions is not. Bush has made expansion of freedom and democracy the central tenet of his foreign policy but has been reluctant to alienate his avowed friend, Russian President Vladimir Putin, even as the Kremlin has rigged or canceled elections, taken over independent television, and prosecuted political enemies.
Some critics, including Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), have called on Bush to boycott the G-8 summit in protest of Putin's suppression of dissent, but the president has rejected such a move as counterproductive. While Cheney said yesterday that the United States supports democracy "through direct aid," Bush has cut funding for democracy groups in the former Soviet Union in half.
"We have to show some leadership," former senator John Edwards (D-N.C.) said in a speech at the Hoover Institution last week. Edwards, who helped lead a Council on Foreign Relations panel on Russia, said Bush should tell Putin that "if you want to be seen as a legitimate power in the world, a force for good, and you want to look outside and not just inward, then democratic reforms matter."
Bush, though, wants Moscow's help on an array of issues, including preventing Iran from developing nuclear weapons. Putin has joined Bush in pressuring Tehran but resists U.N. sanctions. Bush called Putin on Monday to lobby him on Iran, but during the call Putin changed the subject and pressed Bush to finish negotiations allowing Russia into the World Trade Organization. Bush vowed to do so "soon." Aides said that there was no quid pro quo but that they hope to conclude WTO talks before the summit.
The summit, set for July 15-17, has forced administration officials to rethink their approach to Russia for fear that the meeting will be consumed with questions about why the leaders of the world's leading democracies would seemingly ignore Putin's crackdown on internal opposition. Cheney has shown particular interest in the matter, summoning Russia scholars to brief him and meeting secretly with a leading Russian democrat, according to people informed about the sessions.
Administration officials concluded it is not practical to simply urge Russia to be more democratic, so they developed a list of half a dozen things Moscow can do in the next two months to signal a new direction.
Among other things, the administration is recommending that Russia register nongovernmental organizations that have been pressured, such as the New Eurasia Foundation; guarantee energy supplies to neighbors; and ensure that independent monitors are permitted to observe elections down to the local level, according to officials who were not authorized to speak on the record.
"We're not ordering them, we're not telling them," said one official. "We want a good meeting." If the Russians do too, they will take some of these actions, the officials said.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and national security adviser Stephen J. Hadley met with Putin's national security adviser, Igor Ivanov, at the White House yesterday.
Another option under consideration at the White House is to have Bush visit Ukraine before the G-8 summit to demonstrate his solidarity with former Soviet republics that feel pressured by Russia.
"There's concern in Washington that if they go to that sort of meeting the risk is they'll be seen as validating Putin," said Steven Pifer, who was deputy assistant secretary of state in Bush's first term and is now a scholar at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "On the other hand, they have to balance that against how much you want to put your thumb in your host's eye."
The Kremlin has come to realize that it has an image problem in the West, and this week, for the first time, it hired a Western public relations firm, Ketchum. "They were looking for help to improve lines of communication with the world media," said Ketchum Senior Vice President Noam Gelfond.
The Russian government also agreed to include on its official list of summit-related activities a June 29 forum in Moscow on national security and human rights. Among the participants are the New Eurasia Foundation and financier George Soros's Open Society Institute, which is viewed with enormous suspicion by Russia for its role in training democracy activists who toppled governments in Ukraine and Georgia.
But Putin and his aides bristle when they feel they are being lectured, and it remains unclear whether they are willing to make any substantive changes. After Cheney's speech in Lithuania yesterday, Kremlin spokesman Dmitri Peskov pronounced his remarks "completely incomprehensible," according to the Reuters news service.
Cheney's speech reflected a shift in the administration's tone. On Monday, Rice complained about the Kremlin concentration of power. "The jury is out about where Russia is going to end up," she said. On Wednesday, World Press Freedom Day, her spokesman lumped Russia with China, Zimbabwe, Venezuela and Iran as countries that repress journalists.
Cheney's decision to go to Lithuania was itself a message to Russia. The gathering in Vilnius of democratic leaders from the region is the kind of meeting that might normally rate an assistant secretary of state. It's also the kind that typically irritates Russia, which views such gatherings as hostile.
Cheney made a point of meeting with two of Moscow's least favorite people, Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko and Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, who led revolutions in those post-Soviet republics. Cheney had planned to meet with opposition leader Alexander Milinkevich of Belarus, but Milinkevich was jailed by the Belarusan government last week.
"The regime should end this injustice and free Mr. Milinkevich, along with the other democracy advocates held in captivity," Cheney said. He added: "There is no place in a Europe whole and free for a regime of this kind."
Addressing Russia, Cheney said, "In many areas of civil society, from religion and the news media to advocacy groups and political parties, the government has unfairly and improperly restricted the rights of her people." Referring to Russia's brief cutoff of gas to Ukraine, Cheney said, "No legitimate interest is served when oil and gas become tools of intimidation or blackmail."