- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 18, 2006

ST. PETERSBURG. — Prior to the G-8 summit, some critics called for boycotting the event, citing Russia’s backsliding on democracy. But when it came to the actual summit, Russian President Vladimir Putin got away with much less.

The only one to bring up the issue was President Bush. In a conference on Saturday, he expressed his “desire to promote institutional change in parts of the world like Iraq,” only to be assured by Mr. Putin that Russia doesn’t want a democracy “like the one in Iraq.” End of discussion.

Meanwhile, Russia drifted a few steps further away from democracy, as the authorities kept a lid on protests during the weekend. They banned rallies and arrested protesters. But even more disappointing than the authority’s repression was the counter-summit itself. Its low turnout was, at best, a weak support for democracy, and, at worst, no support at all.

It seems ironic, given Russia’s Soviet past, that precisely the communists and socialists, once the staunchest enemies of democratic change, would now be its vehement advocates. Close to 300 demonstrators gathered in downtown St. Petersburg, only to wave red communist flags and chant anti-Putin slogans. Meanwhile, just a handful of self-proclaimed socialists, alter-globalists and Trotskyites gathered at the tracks of a stadium in a remote part of town. It was where their counter-summit was supposed to take place.

The protesters claimed the authorities had intentionally picked a difficult-to-reach location. Participants, most of them elderly, had to walk over a kilometer in order to make it to the event — a test of both their commitment and physical endurance. As if to mock the seriousness of the event, the path leading to the stadium, frequented by people walking or rollerblading, happened to be lined with an almost-desolate amusement park. The protesters — with their modest numbers — raising banners and waving flags, seemed to be yet another attraction for police and passersby. When they requested a peaceful march outside of the stadium on Saturday, riot police locked the protesters behind iron gates.

But given the small size of the crowd, the law enforcers were actually making too much fuss about nothing. Even some of the demonstrators recognized the failure of the event. One participant criticized its finale, saying it had come down to a handful of elderly people singing old Soviet songs, emblematic more of nostalgia for their Communist past than a dedication to a democratic future.

The small turnout at the counter-summit also testifies to the weakness and lack of unity among de facto neutralized opposition forces. Missing from the scene of the action this weekend were the parties that are supposed to be at the forefront of pro-democracy efforts — the right-wing Yabloko and SPS (Union of Right Forces). According to some reports, they had refused to participate in the event because of its overly radical nature, in order not to discredit themselves by mingling with a bunch of marginal socialists and Communists. Instead, the right-wingers preferred to put together their own venue, called “Other Russia,” in the days prior to the G-8 summit.

The forum, held on Tuesday and Wednesday in Moscow, also received an appropriate dose of harassment from the authorities. Foreign diplomats and government officials were advised not to attend and were warned that doing so would be interpreted as an “unfriendly gesture.” Four young activists were arrested, and a German journalist was beaten as he tried to photograph the arrests — yet another sign of Russia’s imperfect democracy.

This so-called sovereign democracy is a euphemism for an authoritarian regime. It is the kind of democracy that has led to the muffling of an independent media, the stifling of the political opposition and the discarding of governors and elections in Russia. It was under the scepter of such a democracy that the arrests and harassment of counter-summit participants took place last week. It is the type of democracy that could defy Western values and turn its back on the United States.

While Mr. Bush seems to understand this, his current position required him to tone down his criticism. Mr. Bush has to seek Russia’s cooperation on Iran, in fighting terrorism and, most recently, on the North Korean nuclear crisis.

But it would be a mistake to belittle the importance of democracy. Mr. Bush personally met with nongovernmental organizations and assured them that he would convey their concerns to Mr. Putin as early as last Friday. Indeed, the American leader kept his promise but also kept his word on not lecturing Russia.

The end of the G-8 summit saw the loss of yet another opportunity to bring attention to Russia’s ailing democracy. The next such opportunity might come too late.

Anna Parachkevova is a Phillips Foundation fellow.She is currently in Russia writing a book about the state of democracy.

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