Memories and meaning

By Neil Buckley, Guy Dinmore and Daniel Dombey

Financial Times

Published: May 6 2005

As world leaders gather in Russia for the 60th anniversary of the defeat of the Nazis, they hold conflicting views on how to deal with increasing signs of authoritarianism by their host.

Moscow's Red Square will on Monday witness the kind of gathering of world leaders rarely seen anywhere, let alone on what was for seven decades the central square of the Soviet empire. Vladimir Putin, Russia's president, will celebrate the 60th anniversary of the defeat of Nazism alongside presidents George W. Bush of the US and Jacques Chirac of France, Gerhard Schröder, the German chancellor and - judging by initial indications from Britain's general election - Tony Blair, the UK prime minister.

Amid the banners and 1940s-style posters will be some 53 leaders, including Hu Jintao, China's president, and Junichiro Koizumi, the Japanese prime minister. There will be some faces less welcomed by western participants, such as Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus, which the US has called Europe's last remaining dictatorship. Kim Jong-il of North Korea is invited but is not known to have confirmed.

There will also be important absentees. Leaders of Lithuania and Estonia, who see the end of the second world war as the beginning of four decades of Soviet occupation, are staying away. So, too, is Mikhail Saakashvili of Georgia, the western-leaning president who came to power after popular uprising, who Mr Bush will go on to visit in Tblisi later on Monday.

For similar reasons, the decision on whether to attend has caused soul-searching among leaders of former Soviet satellites such as Poland. One central European foreign minister privately admitted this week that the event will be "painful and awkward".

Mr Putin will be hoping to paper over the diplomatic cracks in a commemoration of what Russians see as their greatest historical achievement - victory over fascism, at a scarcely imaginable cost. The 27m Soviet lives lost - of whom not all were Russian - amounted to twice the combined total of Americans, French, Germans, and British and Commonwealth citizens killed.

Just as important, the Russian president hopes his ability to attract such a roll-call of leaders to Moscow will demonstrate his success in maintaining Russia's place as an important player in the world.

"It is a major opportunity for him," says Irina Kobrinskaya, a political analyst at Moscow's World Economy and International Relations Institute. "That is one of the main points of having the celebrations on this scale. It is a rare occasion to host world leaders and appear as an equal."

Yet the celebrations take place just as Mr Putin's commitments to democracy and freedom are being questioned. That is posing a dilemma for western leaders. Do they engage with Russia in the hope of keeping Mr Putin on the right track? Or do they distance themselves as a way of exerting pressure and risk provoking a backlash?

Both the US and European Union are following a policy of engagement but the styles are markedly different. Partly because of bipartisan pressure at home, the US has ramped up criticism of Russia's "backsliding on democracy", starting with Mr Bush's previous visit to Europe in February and meeting with Mr Putin in Bratislava, the Slovakian capital.

There is substance to the concerns even if, as Condoleezza Rice, the US secretary of state, noted on a visit to Moscow last month, Russia is far from witnessing a return to the days of the Soviet Union. Presidents and prime ministers jetting in this weekend will find the capital bustling with growing confidence and prosperity, barely recognisable from the bleak place it was 15 years ago.

Yet, as Ms Rice also noted, recent political trends are not encouraging. Mr Putin has centralised even more power in his own hands. At the same time, he has either dismantled, or failed to create, checks and balances on presidential power.

Elections for governors of Russia's 89 regions have been replaced by direct Kremlin appointment. Changes to electoral rules will bar independent candidates and small parties from the Russian parliament, currently two-thirds dominated by the pro-Kremlin United Russia party.

State control over the media is far from total. But many Russians outside the capital get their news from papers controlled by local administrations or from the three state-controlled TV channels. These channels report events such as recent mass protests over benefits reforms but their news is uncritical. Opposition leaders complain they cannot get on air; political discussion programmes have all but disappeared.

The judiciary still functions as an arm of the executive. That much is apparent from what is widely viewed as the politically motivated legal pursuit of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, formerly Russia's richest man, and Yukos, his oil company. Even the postponement of the verdict from April 27 for nearly three weeks was seen as a move by the Kremlin to defer any international criticism until after May 9.

Yukos's main asset, meanwhile, effectively has been renationalised to pay off a $27bn back tax bill, followed by a struggle among Mr Putin's entourage over whether and how to include it in a reshuffle of the state's oil and gas businesses. That has provoked concerns that some administration members are intent on redistributing among themselves some of the assets won by the "oligarchs" in Russia's 1990s privatisations.

Some regional administrations are also seizing property. Entrepreneurs say bureaucracies have replaced organised crime as their biggest headache. Russia's tax authorities, despite pledges from Mr Putin to rein them in, are continuing to hit businesses with huge tax claims - most recently TNK-BP, the Anglo-Russian oil joint venture and the country's biggest foreign investment, which has been hit by a $1bn back-tax claim.

The Russian president's failure to curb such forces has raised questions about whether he is fully in control. These questions diluted the impact of a state of the nation address last week that was aimed at his foreign critics.

"The main political and ideological task is the development of Russia as a free and democratic state," he said. Tax authorities would be prevented from "terrorising" businesses, Mr Putin added, and bureaucratic corruption tackled. He even proposed creating a commission to ensure freedom of expression in broadcasting and access to TV channels for opposition parties.

How to get the right combination of incentives and threats to hold Mr Putin to those promises is a pressing debate in western capitals. For the US, it is a delicate balancing act. Washington needs Russian co-operation on countering terrorism, securing Russia's massive nuclear arsenal and non- proliferation, while Mr Bush's foreign policy aims in his second term have become more overtly orientated towards spreading democracy. Europe, meanwhile, is closely integrated with Russia, reliant on it for a growing portion of its energy needs.

There is pressure for a tougher approach in the US. Two congressmen from California are introducing a bill in the House of Representatives to evict Russia from the Group of Eight industrialised democracies unless it adheres to international standards of democracy. Two prominent senators, John McCain, a Republican, and Joe Lieberman, a Democrat, have introduced parallel legislation in the Senate.

While senior members of the Bush administration may share their sentiments, the legislation is unlikely to succeed. The White House, as well as some influential senators, insist the US has to work with Russia, not isolate it.

Last week, Mr Bush defended his relationship with Mr Putin, highlighting the familiarity which has become somewhat strained since the US president famously described getting "a sense of his soul" when they first met nearly four years ago.

Mr Bush admitted to concerns about proposed Russian sales of vehicle-mounted weaponry to Syria - "we didn't appreciate that" - but welcomed Russia's decision to provide Iran with nuclear fuel for a civilian reactor on the condition that the spent fuel be returned. US acceptance of Russia's deal with Iran follows a failed effort to get Moscow to stop all nuclear co-operation with the Islamic republic, which the US accuses of covertly developing a nuclear arsenal.

Yet, despite the rather unlikely alliance of liberals and neoconservatives putting pressure on Mr Bush to take a tougher approach to Russia, US policy remains driven by pragmatic concerns.

Fiona Hill, an analyst at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think-tank, says tensions in US-Russian relations have led Mr Bush to reassess whether he really did get the measure of Mr Putin's soul. But Mr Bush is likely to play the "good cop" during his May 9 visit, while Ms Rice last month was clearly the "bad cop".

Nonetheless, the Bush administration is sending a message by having the president visit Latvia and Georgia as well as Russia on his latest trip. "He is also sending a message to Russia to back off," Ms Hill says.

The US approach contrasts sharply with that of the Europeans. In March, Mr Schröder, Mr Chirac and José Lús Rodrguez Zapatero, the Spanish prime minister, had dinner in Paris with Mr Putin. The occasion was more convivial than Mr Putin's meeting a few weeks earlier with Mr Bush. Mr Zapatero tactfully spoke of his "respect for the internal politics of each country". Mr Chirac and Mr Schröder, perhaps Mr Putin's biggest allies in western Europe, stressed co-operation with Moscow and skirted over issues such as the long-running conflict in Chechnya.

While EU policy is subject to internal divisions and new members such as Poland and the Baltic states are pushing to stiffen the stance towards Moscow, the more collaborative approach of Europe's big powers predominates. That approach is based on two fundamental perceptions. The first is that the EU's economic future is inextricably linked to Russia, which supplies 20 per cent of the union's natural gas needs - a proportion that could double by 2020.

The second is that a policy of engagement is the best way to convince Russia to reform. On Tuesday, a day after the second world war celebrations, the EU and Russia will hold a summit at which they will sign four far-reaching agreements to foster co-operation in economic, security, diplomatic and research matters.

Despite earlier objections, Moscow has vowed in the agreements to uphold the freedom of the press. But the EU has watered down its earlier language on a "common neighbourhood" with Russia, which implied that Moscow and Brussels shared responsibility for helping countries such as Ukraine.

EU officials maintain that the agreements edge Russia away from its old notion of a natural sphere of influence in the former Soviet states. Instead, the emphasis is on a "strategic partnership" between Russia and the EU.

Some Moscow-based observers say the US and EU, above all, need to develop a joint strategy towards Russia. Lilia Shevtsova, political analyst at the Carnegie Moscow Center, says the west is less able to influence Russia's political development now than in the chaos of the early 1990s. Russia's movement towards democracy is a question only Russians themselves can solve, she adds, though co-ordinated outside pressure may deter Mr Putin and his inner circle from further steps towards authoritarianism.

Leaders also need to reject any idea that dealing with the former Soviet Union is a less important foreign policy priority than a decade ago, when it dominated the international agenda, Ms Shevtsova adds. All the west's most important concerns - terrorism, Islamic fundamentalism, nuclear security and proliferation, new energy sources, the ascendancy of China - collide in the Eurasian landmass. And that territory is physically dominated by Russia and the former Soviet republics. "A coherent policy, and understanding the Russian and post-Soviet space, is the major challenge of the century," she says.

Bush surveys ex-Soviet terrain

The trip to Moscow by George W. Bush, the US president, will be portrayed in Russia as an expression of support for his host, president Vladimir Putin, write Stefan Wagstyl and Guy Dinmore. But his itinerary may be seen as something of an insult.

Before arriving in Moscow, Mr Bush will visit Latvia and, after attending Mr Putin’s second world war commemorations, will fly to Georgia. Washington sees both countries as fighters, both in the global war for democracy and in the regional battle against Russian reassertion in the former Soviet Union.

Latvia, along with neighbouring Estonia and Lithuania, led the way in the revolts that precipitated the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991. In Georgia, the 2003 Rose Revolution, which brought president Mikheil Saakashvili to power, has launched a new wave of democratic protest in the region. In particular, the Georgian demonstrators helped inspire the crowds that this year brought president Viktor Yushchenko to office in Ukraine’s Orange Revolution. The Ukrainian precedent, in turn, influenced protestors in Kyrgyzstan, who in March drove president Askar Akayev from power.

Stephen Hadley, Mr Bush’s national security adviser, has said the trip was not intended to send any message to Moscow. Others see it differently. “This visit is a clear message . . . for the Russians that the cold war is over,” says Gocha Tskitishvili, a Georgian political analyst.

For Mr Bush, promoting the new order in the former Soviet Union includes encouraging further democratic change. As Condoleezza Rice, his secretary of state, made clear on her recent visit to eastern Europe, top of Washington’s list is Belarus. US officials see an opportunity for the ousting of dictatorial president Alexander Lukashenko in elections next year. The Kremlin has warned Washington against interfering in Minsk but the US seems undeterred.

American officials see the democratic changes in the former Soviet Union as the fruits, to some extent, of US labours to promote civil society. A former senior official, saying one reason the military refused to fire on demonstrators in Ukraine was US training, adds: “The more you can develop a very firm foundation of responsibility and right s of the individual in civil society, the more you can push through the argument that free elections count.”

However, the US administration balances the drive for democracy with other priorities, notably its need for oil supplies and the fight against Islamic terrorism. Criticis m of the authoritarian rulers of oil-rich Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan, where western companies are making big investments, is muted. In the poor states of Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and, to some extent, Kyrgyzstan, concerns exist that political unrest could open the way for Islamic fundamentalism. Also, with Afghanistan lying close to the south, there are fears of promoting regional instability and violence.

Robert Barry of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington says the US is not putting special emphasis on democratising central Asia. “We have emphasised the geopolitical side of this area more than democratisation.”

For Moscow that is a crumb of comfort because it, too, worries about Islamism and instability. But the Kremlin will be angered by Mr Bush’s efforts to promote democracy elsewhere. The US president may have agreed to stand on the podium in Red Square on Monday but that will not stop him marching about the former Soviet Union pretty much as he wishes.