Russia's romance with West runs aground over wars, democracy

Sunday, December 21, 2003

MOSCOW -- Russia's romance with the West appears to be in trouble over its renewed assertiveness toward former Soviet republics and what many view as the Kremlin's growing authoritarian streak.

Europe and the United States are taking the Kremlin to task, saying Russia is backsliding on democracy. Russia says the West is condescending and hypocritical, and the backlash is felt in the victory of anti-Westerners in the Dec. 7 parliamentary election.

"It's obvious that relations are worsening," said Boris Nemtsov, a leader of the Union of Right Forces.

His Western-oriented, liberal party failed to get into the State Duma, or lower house, in the election, which European observers described as unfair and a setback to democracy.

After the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, Russia rode a wave of Western admiration for President Vladimir Putin's steadfast support of the U.S.-led war on terror, but now Moscow is on the defensive.

Earlier this month, Moscow refused to sign a final document in which it was criticized for not fulfilling its 1999 pledge to withdraw troops from the ex-Soviet republics of Georgia and Moldova.

Also, the European Union turned a cold shoulder to Putin's push for mutual, visa-free travel, and to Moscow's concerns that the expanding bloc is getting closer to Russia's frontiers.

Anti-western sentiments

Britain, Denmark and Greece have all rebuffed Russia's attempts to extradite citizens it accuses of grave crimes.

"The West hasn't made even tactical concessions to Russia to secure good strategic relations for the years ahead," said Alexei Arbatov, a liberal former lawmaker. "Western policy toward Russia has helped strengthen anti-western, nationalistic sentiments."

The most obvious result is the strong showing in parliament of the nationalist Homeland bloc. The movement campaigned on slogans of cracking down on big business, countering Western expansionism and protecting ethnic Russians abroad.

"There are no pro-Western forces in the new State Duma -- they all are either radically or moderately anti-Western," Arbatov said. "It will put pressure on the president ... pushing him in that direction."

Some fear that without positive feedback from the West, Putin might reverse his course of befriending the West and launch aggressive attempts to wrest ex-Soviet republics out of the Western orbit. Optimists hope the president will refrain from open confrontation, but even they don't expect the Kremlin to bow to Western pressure.

"After striving for integration into the West, Russia may now turn to forming its own zone of influence on former Soviet territory," said Dmitry Trenin of the Carnegie Endowment's Moscow office.

Putin bolstered relations with the United States by welcoming the U.S. military deployment in former Soviet republics in Central Asia for the war in Afghanistan. However, Russian officials have become increasingly impatient, urging Washington to set a deadline for getting out of the strategically located, energy-rich region.

Nemtsov said Putin apparently expects that Russia's role in settling global crises will shield him from U.S. criticism.

"The Kremlin hopes that the fight against terrorism will overshadow all other problems," Nemtsov said.

When ties were warming, the West tempered its criticism of Russia's war in Chechnya and issued only muted rebukes when Russia's independent TV stations were forced off the air. But U.S.-Russian relations were badly hurt by Moscow's opposition to the war in Iraq.

The probe against Russia's largest oil company, Yukos, added to the strain. Widely perceived as politically driven, it has spooked foreign investors and raised doubts about the rule of law in Russia.

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