As foreign ministers of the Group of Seven industrialized nations and Russia meet in Moscow to prepare the agenda for next month's G-8 summit in St. Petersburg, a U.S. Senate hearing examined Western concerns about Russian democracy and proposals for dealing with such concerns.
In its human rights report issued in March, the U.S. State Department criticized Russia's President Vladimir Putin for seeking to centralize power in the executive branch by undermining parliament and replacing elected provincial governors with appointees.
The report said the trend, taken together with growing media restrictions, continuing corruption, selectivity in enforcement of the law, political pressure on the judiciary and harassment of some nongovernmental organizations, resulted in an erosion of the accountability of government leaders to the people.
At a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing, the chairman, Republican Senator Richard Lugar of Indiana, dismissed calls from some in Congress for the United States to boycott next month's G-8 summit in St. Petersburg.
Instead, he said, the United States should work with Europe and Japan to support Russian civil society, a free and independent media, the application of the rule of law and a resolution of conflicts in the region. He said attempting to isolate Russia is likely to be self-defeating and harmful to American interests.
But the top Democrat on the panel, Senator Joe Biden of Delaware, called on the other G-8 leaders to take a harder line toward Russia.
In making his comments, he referred to a gas pricing dispute with Ukraine in January that disrupted gas supplies to Europe. "I believe the Putin administration is dealing with two conflicting desires: on the one hand, it is determined that Russia be a great power and respected around the world, and the other wants to bully its neighbors, depress political dissent, and use energy as a weapon of mass disruption. I hope President Bush and other leaders of the G7 will use the summit in St. Petersburg to deliver a simple message: you cannot have it both ways. You cannot be a very great power and a corrupt, authoritarian petrol state at the same time," he said.
But Dmitri Trenin, deputy director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, played down the concerns, says it is wrong to think international pressure on Russia will force the kind of democratic change the West demands:
"I find this to be a very dangerous illusion. Positive changes in Russia will come, and they will come from within, but they will need time, and I would say a long time to coalesce," he said.
Trenin says Russia is developing capitalism, and says the growth and future role of the middle class is what will ultimately lead Russia on the road to a functioning democracy.
But he added that external factors will have a role to play, although not in the form of pressure from foreign governments. Rather, he said, the openness of Russia to the outside world and in particular its proximity to the European Union would help move Russia along the path to democracy.