In a brilliant one-two punch, the Times of London has provided a bookend for the Telegraph expose of Putin's Neo-Soviet Union. Shamefully, the American and other foreign press is lagging far behind the stalwart Britons, without whose coverage of Russia the world would be a much darker place. Jolly good old boys and girls! Keep it up!
The kindly grandmother seemed unlikely to be plotting a violent street demonstration, but police in St Petersburg, where the G8 summit of world leaders takes place next weekend, were taking no chances. They marched into Anna Shashokina’s flat, claimed it was being used as the headquarters of an opposition group and demanded to know her political views.
“I became so agitated and worried I had a mild heart attack,” Shashokina, 67, said. “These things used to happen under communism in the 1970s when people were grilled by police. But isn’t Russia a democracy now? Isn’t it a free country?”
The visit was no mix-up. Shashokina’s son, Andrei, is a little-known opposition figure. In the run-up to the summit, a special police unit has been questioning and intimidating hundreds of opposition activists and their relatives. Critics of the Kremlin have been hauled into police stations to be photographed, fingerprinted and warned against taking part in demonstrations.
It is part of a pattern of repression that has led western politicians to question whether Russia under President Vladimir Putin belongs in the G8 of democratic nations at all. Relations between America and Russia are at their lowest ebb since the collapse of communism.
“The time for glad-handing is over,” said Ariel Cohen of the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank in Washington. “Putin wants to maintain a smiling facade but the reality is that Russia is close to breaking with the West.”
Putin spent last week mimicking the actions of a western politician. He clumsily volunteered too much information about the last time he had had sex and explained unconvincingly why he had kissed the stomach of a five-year-old boy visiting the Kremlin, saying: “I just wanted to stroke him like a kitten.”
The Russian president also went out of his way to charm human rights activists, such as Irene Khan of Amnesty International, with whom he clucked sympathetically over the Americans’ treatment of terrorist suspects in Guantanamo Bay.
All the while, the crackdown in St Petersburg was gathering pace. Olga Kunosova, from the Yabloko opposition party, received a threatening anonymous phone call. “I was told if I didn’t stop my work and leave town I would end up being hit over the head with a pipe.”
Andrei Dimitriev, a leading left-wing activist, went into hiding after being ordered by police to tell his followers they should stay away from demonstrations. “They told me to stop all political activity at once and leave the city or they’d take me to the woods and bury me.”
The summit, chaired by Putin, will open on Saturday in the gilded 18th-century palace of Konstantinovsky, the president’s official residence on the outskirts of St Petersburg. Putin has spent £135m restoring the sprawling palace to its former opulence. The summit organisers have ordered 6.5m flowers to be planted along roads leading to the palace, but their fragrance might not be able to sweeten the disagreements.
For Putin, a former KGB agent who grew up in near-poverty only a few miles away, the official G8 agenda bears little relation to the real purpose of the summit. With 70% approval ratings, he is in expansive mood. “The message will be clear. Like it or not, Russia is back,” said a Kremlin aide. “We are on the way to becoming a gas and oil superpower.
“For Putin, the most important thing at the G8 is to get the respect he feels Russia deserves. It is about being up there with the big boys again.”
Russia accounts for just 2.6% of world GDP but has 27% of world gas reserves and 6% of proven oil reserves. The G7 account for 41% of global GDP but have only 4% of gas reserves and 9% of the oil.
Washington has been watching Putin’s assertion of power with increasing alarm. “Russia is no longer paying attention to what the Americans or the Europeans tell them,” said Cohen, who returned from a visit to Russia last week. “They’ve got their own agenda and they’re pushing it very hard.”
Top of the official programme is energy security: can the world lessen its dependence on oil and switch to alternative sources of energy?
Showing that America and Russia can co-operate where they have mutual interests, Bush plans to announce an agreement on civilian nuclear power, according to yesterday’s Washington Post. Russia could earn billions from the deal, which would permit America to dump spent nuclear fuel there, but it will prove controversial.
“You will have the anti-Russian right against it, you will have all the anti-nuclear left against it and you will have the Russian democracy centre concerned about it too,” said Matthew Bunn, a nuclear specialist at Harvard.
Putin also intends to raise the fight against Aids and to emphasise the importance of improving education.
On the informal agenda are vexing issues such as Iran’s nuclear programme and North Korea’s missile tests. The Russians and Chinese have thwarted US efforts to impose sanctions on the two “axis of evil” nations, while stringing out the diplomacy.
Under Putin, 53, Russia has sold arms to Syria and is helping Iran develop “peaceful” nuclear technology.
Frustration with Russia led Dick Cheney, the US vice-president, to denounce Russia last May for rolling back democracy and using its oil and gas to bully its neighbours. “Russia is behaving like a runaway rogue state,” said one insider.
Cheney’s speech, which was reminiscent of the cold war era, was delivered with Bush’s approval, but the president is expected to be far more diplomatic on Putin’s home turf. An early flashpoint of tension will be an “alternative” summit — sponsored by the American National Endowment for Democracy and the Soros Foundation — which opens at a Moscow hotel this Wednesday.
It will be launched by Garry Kasparov, the chess champion, who has compared the G8 summit to the 1936 Nazi Olympics; and Mikhail Kasyanov, a former prime minister of Russia. Both have long been barred from airing critical views on Russian television, now strictly under the Kremlin’s control.
Despite Russian warnings that the presence of top western officials will be taken as an “unfriendly” act, the British ambassador, Tony Brenton, is expected to attend the summit. Washington is thinking of sending Nick Burns, its high-flyer at the State Department.
Ultimately, however, the two nations may be on a collision course. Some US senators, such as John McCain, the 2008 presidential hopeful, have already said that Russia does not deserve to be in the G8. “There could come a point at which a line is crossed which will make it impossible to argue that Russia belongs in a group of advanced industrial democracies,” said Gershman.
Another view gaining ground in Washington is that the G8 could be expanded to the G10 or more. If Russia continues to head in an undemocratic direction, there is no reason why countries with fast-growing economies, such as China and India or even Brazil, should not be welcomed into the club’s hallowed membership.
The G7 — the US, the UK, France, Germany, Italy, Japan and Canada — could then continue as a democratic sub-group, lessening Russia’s influence. “People who used to be very calm about getting on with Russia are growing extremely concerned,” said Cohen. “Behind the scenes, Putin should be told the implications of breaking with the West. Relations between Russia and the West are at their lowest point in the post-communist era.”
The mounting tension is a far cry from the American and Russian presidents’ first meeting in 2002, when Bush famously claimed to have looked into Putin’s eyes and seen his soul. The notion that membership of the G8 would draw Russia into the West’s embrace has been confounded.
Andrei Illarionov, a former Putin aide who negotiated Russia’s membership of the G8 in the 1990s, resigned earlier this year in protest at the regime’s heavy-handedness. Instead, he will be at the alternative summit this week.
“This is not the Russia in which we want to live. This is not the country in which we want our children to live,” Illarionov said. “That is why we are trying to do everything possible to make sure that sooner or later we have another country: the Russia of citizens, the rule-of-law, prosperity and freedom.”
RETURN OF THE SOVIET-STYLE IRON GRIP