PRESIDENT Bush met President Putin last week amid growing concerns that the Russian leader is turning his back on democratic reforms. The encounter was cordial but Bush conceded that he and Putin had had a “frank exchange”, which is usually diplomatic code for an unresolved disagreement.
The meeting followed forthright comments from US Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, earlier this month when she made clear that Russia had to safeguard the independence of the judiciary and press.
Washington has grown increasingly disillusioned with Putin since last September’s Beslan massacre, when more than 330 people taken hostage by Chechnyan rebels died after a 48-hour siege. Some commentators allege that Putin exploited the event to concentrate power into the Kremlin’s hands by introducing changes to the electoral system. Putin ruled that governors would no longer be elected by popular vote but would instead be nominated by the president. He also declared that Russians would no longer vote for individual members of Parliament, just political parties. Putin also dramatically increased defence spending by 40 per cent.
Washington has been particularly concerned by Putin’s iron control of the media. The editor of one of Russia’s best-known daily newspapers, Izvestiya, blamed the Kremlin for forcing him to resign over his coverage of Beslan. Raf Shakirov said he was effectively sacked after his paper questioned casualty figures and printed graphic photos of the carnage. At the time, the prominent Russian journalist, Sergey Dorenko, said Shakirov’s dismissal revealed Putin’s “fostered, pampered, corrupt bureaucracy, which is afraid of the truth”.
The White House has also been frustrated by Russian missile sales to Syria and its nuclear cooperation with Iran. Only last weekend, Russia and Iran signed an agreement for Moscow to supply fuel to Iran’s new nuclear reactor in Bushehr, in defiance of Washington’s wishes. The Bush administration has also voiced concern over human rights issues, in particular stories of extreme barbarity emanating from the Russian army.
Bush defends press freedom
During their meeting, Putin assured Bush that any return to authoritarian rule was “unthinkable”. He told reporters that Russia had chosen democracy “independently”, not because of pressure from outside. But he added that democracy must be adapted to Russian conditions, taking into account the country’s “history and traditions”.
Putin also dismissed comparisons between Russia and the United States as inappropriate. “The implementation of the principles and norms of democracy should not be accompanied by the collapse of the state and the impoverishment of the people,” he said.
A source revealed that Putin recently told Bush that the Russian people had a history of powerful tsars and that they were accustomed to government playing a strong role in their lives. Bush apparently rejected this explanation and repeated his disagreement at their summit. “Democracies always reflect a country’s culture and customs and I know that. But they have certain things in common. They have rule of law, protection of minorities, a free press and a viable political opposition,” Bush told reporters.
He reserved his strongest criticism for Putin’s curtailment of press independence. “People do get fired in American press. They don’t get fired by government, however. They get fired by their editors or they get fired by their producers. Or they get fired by the owners of a particular outlet or network,” he said.
Public disagreements with Putin are awkward for the White House because Bush went out of his way to praise the Russian leader after their 2001 meeting. “I was able to get a sense of his soul – a man deeply committed to the best interests of his country,” Bush declared at the time.
Russia became an issue during last year’s debates, when presidential candidate, John Kerry, pressed for a tougher stance against Moscow. “Putin now controls all the television stations and his political opposition is being put in jail,” said Kerry at the time. But, despite their growing differences, Bush continues to insist that Putin is an ally.
Winston Churchill once described Russia as “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma”, a description which could well apply to Putin himself. Much of his early life was spent working for the KGB and, in private, he is said to look back fondly on the Soviet era of state control.
Some commentators see him as a colourless bureaucrat and have dubbed him “the grey cardinal”. Others noted his apparent lack of emotion in 2000, when 118 seamen lost their lives in the Kursk nuclear submarine. Meanwhile, his increasing authoritarianism, whatever his public justifications, continues to alarm the West who are starting to wonder when the real Vladimir Putin will stand up…