International Herald Tribune.
If Bush pushes criticism, Putin will push back
By Steven R. Weisman The New York Times
Wednesday, February 23, 2005
WASHINGTON President George W. Bush's determined effort to focus on Russia's crackdown on independent business and internal dissent when he meets with President Vladimir Putin this week is likely to get a tart response, according to the Russian ambassador to the United States, Yuri Ushakov.
In written answers to questions submitted by The New York Times before Bush left for Europe, Ushakov said Putin would likely respond to Bush's criticism by raising "our own concerns about the situation in the United States and certain troubling aspects of Washington's policies."
He noted that "parts of public opinion in Russia are not necessarily supportive of some of America's actions in certain regions of the world" and that "there are others who are highly critical of your electoral system."
Ushakov did not offer specifics, but Bush administration officials suggested that he was referring to such matters as the detention of prisoners at Abu Ghraib in Iraq and Guantánamo Bay and the 2000 presidential election, in which the U.S. Supreme Court awarded the victory to Bush over Democratic objections.
The ambassador's comments provided a glimpse into the difficulties of relations with Russia, which have been strained by recent actions in Moscow and also apparently by the administration's decision, signaled by Bush's second inaugural address, to make human rights more of a centerpiece of U.S. foreign policy.
Starting a little more than a year ago, the Bush administration has gone increasingly public with its concerns about internal Russian practices, particularly the seizure of independent businesses and prosecution of business executives, and more recently by Putin's efforts to cement his control of the political process.
A day after Bush's inaugural speech, a senior administration official said the president's objective in a second term was to achieve "an acceleration" and "a raising of the priority" of human rights in his discussions with other leaders, including those from Russia, China, Egypt, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia.
Since the speech, human rights advocates and some diplomats outside the administration have started raising their own criticism, challenging Bush to make the meeting with Putin in Bratislava on Thursday a kind of test case for the new policy.
Two weeks ago, when Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice met with the Russian foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, in Ankara - a meeting held to plan the one this week with Putin - a senior official said she had elevated domestic Russian concerns in importance in her talks. But he gave no details.
This week, after Ambassador Ushakov's written responses were received, a senior administration official said he was "familiar with the whole Russian whine list" of complaints often directed at the United States' domestic policies.
But even after the Rice-Lavrov session, and a couple hours of talks afterwards to prepare for the Bratislava meeting, two top officials said they could not be certain what Putin would raise with Bush.
What Ushakov's comments seemed to show was a Russian determination to acknowledge some difficulties in trying to combat terrorism but to respond to any effort by Bush to discuss Russian domestic matters with firm rebuttals, explanations and counter-arguments rather than promises to change anything.
"Russia is open to legitimate criticism," Ushakov said. "We are aware of our shortcomings on the domestic front and the challenges we still face in overcoming the multitude of complex problems we inherited from the recent and not so recent past," Ushakov said.
He cited the "terrible tragedy in Beslan," referring to the school hostage siege that led to more than 300 deaths, half of them school children, last September, saying that afterwards "it became increasingly obvious that some of our rules of governance need to be adjusted to ensure more security to our people and integrity of the country."
Ushakov said that Russia also had "to take substantial steps against some unlawful business practices hurting our economy" and that, contrary to U.S. criticism, "all this by no means constitutes a backslide from our commitment to market economy, democracy, civil society and the rule of law."
Finally, the ambassador said, "each country has a unique set of circumstances, different historical and cultural backgrounds" and that "what's good for one country might not work elsewhere."
To the extent that these comments foretell what Bush might hear from Putin is hard to say. And although Bush signaled on Monday in Brussels that Russia "must renew a commitment to democracy and the rule of law," administration officials said they could not predict exactly how he would make his points to Putin.
The Bush administration has been upset in particular by the seizure of the oil giant Yukos, the prosecution of its executives and other actions that seem to suggest a new intolerance of independent business power in Russia.
In addition, the United States has objected to Putin's move to end the popular election of regional governors and to make parliamentary voting based on party slates rather than individuals.
Senators John McCain, Republican of Arizona, and Joseph Lieberman, Democrat of Connecticut, have called on the United States to remove Russia from the Group of 8, the eight leading industrial countries of the world, on the basis of its domestic political record.
Bush administration officials have rejected such a step, however.
Rice, after meeting with Lavrov in Turkey, said it would be a mistake to "isolate" Russia when it is cooperating on several fronts, notably in investigating Islamic radical terrorists and in trying to persuade Iran not to have a nuclear weapons program.
Rice and Stephen Hadley, the national security adviser, say that Bush's formulation is not to antagonize Russia but to insist that any long-term improvement in relations depends on Russia doing a better job of reflecting democratic "values" as seen from Washington.
But some administration officials also acknowledge that Russia does not appear to want to improve relations with the United States right now.
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Democracy: Government by the people, exercised either directly or through elected representatives.
Somebody should probably explain the term to Bush, don't you think so?