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Five years on: the changing tide on Putin's Russia

By David Atkinson, Jennifer Moll. Source: FPC Analysis, April 2005

Five years after President Putin's accession to power, portraying Russia as a friend of the West, sharing values and a mutual commitment to democracy, is increasingly difficult to defend. As President Bush pointedly remarked at last month's summit with Putin in Bratislava: 'Democracies have certain things in common - a rule of law and protection of minorities, and a free press and a viable political opposition.' Putin's recent moves to reassert the power of the Kremlin and tamper with the independence of both media and judiciary suggest that none of the items on President Bush's list are now guaranteed in Russia. Added to the mounting evidence of Russia's continued meddling in the internal affairs of its neighbours - namely in the Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova – this has led to a perceptible hardening in international opinion. Last month, the Foreign Affairs Select Committee in the UK parliament called on the government to take a tougher stance on Russia's violations of human and democratic rights more generally, instead of confining censure to the ongoing problems in Chechnya.

At the same time, a growing conceptual gap is emerging between Russia and the West. Europe has long sought to build common values by placing human rights at the heart of relations with Russia, namely by monitoring how the country meets its commitments within the Council of Europe and the OSCE. President Putin, meanwhile, loudly denounces any suggestion that Russia is moving away from democracy. His administration is now applying considerable pressure for the Council of Europe to end the 'humiliation' of detailed scrutiny of Russia's record on human rights and democracy – or outside interference, as Russia's ultra nationalists describe it.

To complicate matters, Russian society itself is divided as to the particular meaning of democracy and freedom for the country. Against the majority of the population sympathetic to Putin's argument of the need for strong leadership to deal with the admittedly considerable threats of terrorism and corruption that the country faces, stands the growing outrage of Russian liberals. The scathing attacks on Putin made by Garry Kasparov, the former chess grandmaster, during his astonishing recent international 'tour' to build support for a possible presidential bid, is a measure of just how far things have come since Putin's first accession to power.

Increasingly, the question is: 'Whither Russia?' Many nervously recall the predictions of the 1990s that Russia's fragile democracy would descend into a Pinochet-style autocracy, and see recent trends as ominous. And to date Putin has been remarkably successful in cracking down on the power of regional governors and restricting the room for manoeuvre of political parties, with the new laws passed after Beslan.

But it is precisely because many of these reforms have not impacted on the average Russian that some leading Russian liberals, paradoxically, now admit to half-hoping that Putin will be tempted into going too far and overstretching himself. Many believe the Russian president is walking a dangerous line. The well-documented cases of intimidation of the media and of NGOs, and the decision to place the final free television stations under Kremlin control, have led once vocal voices to fall silent. How much more Putin will be able to erode hard-won freedoms without popular contest is open to question.

What position should Europe now take, given the complex and evolving dynamics of Russian politics? Clearly it cannot unreservedly accept Russia as "one of us". Putin's recent moves have violated standards that Russia is committed to both under its constitution and in its pledges to Europe's intergovernmental and interparliamentary institutions. The Council of Europe must use this leverage to promote the freedoms that European nations enjoy in Russia through continued monitoring - and cannot accept terrorism as an acceptable excuse for recent abuses, as the report of the Foreign Affairs Committee makes clear.

The international community must also resist the temptation to sit by passively and rely on Putin's possible vulnerability. Fifteen years after the end of the Cold War, it cannot hope that Russia will once again implode of itself in a peaceful and bloodless revolution. The stakes are too high, and the dangers too uncertain. European leaders are particularly well-placed to have an impact at this critical juncture. The OSCE and the Council of Europe should now work with Putin's government to make the point that respecting individual rights and a democratic rule of law can have its own positive consequences. This means engaging imaginatively with Russian's current leadership to convince them that dialogue with the West on the protection of human and democratic rights need not mean sinister 'outside interference'. Not only would this make for better relations with the West, it would promote a more stable and prosperous Russia as well.

David Atkinson is the former MP for Bournemouth East and Rapporteur on the Monitoring of Russia's commitments to the Council of Europe. Jennifer Moll is the Programme Officer for Russia at the Foreign Policy Centre and co-author of Losing Ground? Russia's European Commitments to Human Rights.