Friday, February 18, 2005

Sens. John McCain and Joe Lieberman introduced a resolution yesterday calling on President Bush to work to suspend Russia’s membership in the G-8 group of leading industrial democracies until Russian President Vladimir Putin proves his commitment to democracy.

“President Putin’s assault on democracy in Russia violates the spirit of the industrialized democracies and the letter of Russia’s obligations to the Group of Eight,” said Mr. Lieberman, Connecticut Democrat. “We must openly confront anti-democratic backsliding in Russia for the sake of all those who look to the United States as a beacon of freedom.”

The move came only days before the president is to meet with Mr. Putin in Slovakia on Thursday and just as Mr. Putin alarmed the international world yesterday by saying he now believes Iran does not aspire to develop nuclear weapons.

Mr. McCain and Mr. Lieberman, a prolific and potent legislative pair, introduced a similar resolution in 2003, and California Reps. Tom Lantos, a Democrat, and Christopher Cox, a Republican, introduced a companion resolution in the House.

Yesterday Mr. McCain, Arizona Republican, said that “since then, Russia has actually moved backward.”

“Mr. Putin has moved to eliminate the popular election of Russia’s 89 regional governors, has cracked down on independent media, continued his repression of business executives who oppose his government and is reasserting the Kremlin’s old-style central control,” he said. “The coup is no longer creeping ” it is galloping.”

The resolution does not have a binding effect, but calls for the president to work with the other members of the G-8 to suspend Russia’s membership until Mr. Bush can certify to Congress that the Russian government is committed to democratic principles.

The 2003 resolution advanced through the House International Relations Committee to the House floor, where it never received a full vote. The Senate bill never received a vote in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

This year the Senate bill has already garnered more co-sponsors than last time, including the second-ranking Democrat, Minority Whip Richard J. Durbin of Illinois.

James Freeman, legislative director for Mr. Cox, said the congressman will be preparing and introducing another resolution for the House this year. A spokeswoman for Mr. Lantos said while he has not yet introduced another version he supports the senators’ resolution.

In response to the new revelations about Iraq from the Russian president, Mr. Lantos yesterday called it part of a disturbing pattern.

“This is a shocking, but nonetheless increasingly familiar, display of vulgar greed triumphing over common sense on Russia’s part,” he said. “I cannot believe that President Putin has the vision to ‘peer into the soul’ of the Iranian Security Council Chief Rowhani and discern nothing but blue skies and butterflies, while remaining blind to more than 18 years of Iranian lies and deceptions over its nuclear activities.”

He said that if Mr. Putin ships nuclear fuel to Iran, Congress will insist that Mr. Bush impose sanctions on Iran under the Iran Nonproliferation Act.

The 2003 resolution was introduced after Mr. Putin’s government and privately held energy giant Yukos clashed over political differences and tax debts.

The Russian government in July 2003 raided Yukos’ offices and in October 2003 arrested company Chairman Mikhail Khordokovsky on charges of tax evasion, theft of state property and fraud. Mr. Khordokovsky, who denied the charges, had been an outspoken critic of Mr. Putin and contributed to opposition campaigns.

Russia auctioned off Yukos’ most valuable asset, Yuganskneftegas, in December 2004 to raise money for billions of dollars in taxes it said the company owed. The buyer was an unknown company, which then was bought by Rosneft, the Russian state-owned oil company.

Steven Theede, Yukos chief executive officer, at a Senate hearing this week, called Rosneft “a front for the Kremlin.”

“Americans should be concerned about a Russian government still willing to unleash its agents in a ruthless campaign against companies or individuals. Likewise, we should be wary of a retreat from democratic values in Russia and a seeming level of instability, especially given Russia’s strategic location and nuclear capability,” Mr. Theede said at the Senate hearing.

At the hearing, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Sen. Richard G. Lugar said: “Despite elections and the experience of post-Soviet personal freedoms by the Russian people, the fate of democracy in Russia is perhaps more ambiguous now than at any time since the collapse of the communist system.”

When introduced, the last resolution was praised by some of Russia’s opponents, including Chechen officials who said it would underscore their belief that Russia “must have no place in the group of developed democracies.”

But some analysts at the time said suspending Russia from the G-8 would be counterproductive. They argued the way to drag Russia toward democracy is through greater engagement.

The G-8 also includes Britain, Canada, Japan, France, Italy and Germany. Russia was invited to join as a full member in June 2002, even though it does not have one of the world’s eight biggest economies. World Bank figures show Russia’s economic output at 16th in the world, behind non-G-8 countries such as China, Mexico, India and Brazil.

Russia is slated to host the G-8 summit in 2006.

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