- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 16, 2004

President Bush said yesterday that he is “concerned” that a new plan by Russian President Vladimir Putin to fight terror by centralizing political power could undermine democracy in Russia.

“As governments fight the enemies of democracy, they must uphold the principles of democracy,” Mr. Bush said in his first comment on Mr. Putin’s proposal.

Mr. Bush said that when he visited the Russian Embassy in Washington shortly after the recent terrorist attack on a school in Russia, he told Mr. Putin that “we stand shoulder to shoulder with him in fighting terror, that we abhor the men who kill innocent children to try to achieve a dark vision.”

“I’m also concerned about the decisions that are being made in Russia that could undermine democracy in Russia,” Mr. Bush said in a speech yesterday in the White House East Room.

In Russia, the Kremlin told the Bush administration to mind its own business.

“First of all, the processes that are under way in Russia are our internal affair,” Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told reporters yesterday in Kazakhstan, where former Soviet states are set to meet today to figure out a joint approach to fighting terrorism.

Mr. Putin announced last week that he plans an extensive overhaul of government in response to the school attack in Beslan by Chechen rebels earlier this month. The terrorists took more than 1,200 hostages, killing 338 persons, more than half of them children.

But several Bush administration officials have expressed concern about Mr. Putin’s plan to nominate regional governors himself and enact changes to the electoral system that effectively will stop the rise of a strong parliamentary opposition.

Secretary of State Colin L. Powell warned Russia on Tuesday that broad new anti-terrorism moves announced by Mr. Putin could harm the country’s fledgling democracy.

Mr. Powell said Mr. Putin’s plan marked a “pulling back on some of the democratic reforms” in Russia since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

“You have to find a balance between fighting terrorism in an aggressive way and also making sure that we don’t undercut the institutions of state that are based on the foundation of democracy,” Mr. Powell said.

Mr. Lavrov yesterday bluntly addressed the secretary’s criticism, saying “it is at least strange that, while talking about a certain ‘pulling back’, as he put it, on some of the democratic reforms in the Russian Federation, he tried to assert yet one more time the thought that democracy can only be copied from someone’s model.”

“We, for our part, do not comment on the U.S. system of presidential elections, for instance,” Mr. Lavrov added.

Deputy Secretary of State Richard L. Armitage said yesterday during a stop in Prague that he was concerned about Russia’s secrecy in its effort to fight terrorism.

“We are a little disappointed that recently it seems that the Russian Federation has got a little more secretive about its strategy. It has restricted the media somewhat, so we don’t really have such good access to this information,” he said. “As we go forward, I hope the Russian Federation will be clear on how it intends to prosecute this war. If it does, we can agree that we can be of assistance.”

The European Union echoed the U.S. stance, with EU External Relations Commissioner Chris Patten saying that resolution to the Chechen conflict lay in “far-sighted, humane and resolute” policies, not in limiting democracy.

“I hope [solutions] are forthcoming and that the government of the Russian Federation will not conclude that the only answer to terrorism is to increase the power of the Kremlin,” Mr. Patten told the European Parliament.

In the aftermath of the September 11 attacks against the United States, Mr. Bush declared that his administration would adhere to a new doctrine of pre-emption, which calls for the United States to strike enemies before they can hit the country. Democrats also have charged that parts of the anti-terror Patriot Act infringe on the civil liberties of Americans.

Still, the Bush administration has pushed Russia to strive for a political solution to the problems in Chechnya, where a conflict has raged between Moscow and separatists for 10 years.

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