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US Raises Questions about  Russia's Commitment to Democracy and Human Rights

During the recent annual OSCE Conference (The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe) on human rights in Warsaw, Poland (Sept 19-30), the United States raised questions about the commitment of Russia to the rule of law and to international humanitarian standards. The head of the U.S. delegation Lorne Craner spoke with VOA's Ivana Kuhar upon his return from Warsaw.

Former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, Lorne Craner, says Russia's democratic development has stalled. Mr. Craner, who led the U.S. delegation to the Warsaw conference said while initial democratic reforms during the era of President Boris Yeltsin had shown promise, Russian authorities are now increasingly showing signs of reverting to totalitarian ways of governing.

"Earlier in this decade, you began to see retrenchment in freedoms, you began to see political parties be called upon to have higher signature thresholds [in order to participate in elections], you began to see non-governmental organizations be harassed, you began to see government taking over media, especially the electronic media in Russia," he said.

Russian President Vladimir Putin recently announced that foreign assistance for political activities in Russia would no longer be permitted. Such a move, Mr. Craner said, would isolate Russia from the modern world.

"If they were to make that the case, they would be the third country in the world, along with Zimbabwe (and Belarus), that would have banned outside advice to people inside their country. I pointed out to the Russian delegation that my (organization), American, NGO, accepts foreign funding," he said.

Mr. Craner currently serves as the president of the International Republican Institute, an NGO promoting democratic values.

He said Russia has made impressive gains in economic reform since the 1998 financial crisis, but the economy is still overly dependent on politics. Key social indicators are troublesome and the standard of living is considerably lower than in the formerly communist countries of Central European.

Mr. Craner rejects arguments that Russia needs to develop economically before it can implement thorough political reform:

"I think that's the case you could have made on this earth 20 years ago, but when you see countries like Mongolia and Mali, which are very, very poor countries, and much worse off economically then Russia, but are still moving forward politically, that argument just does not hold water," he said.

Mr. Craner said the U.S. recognizes Russia's legitimate right to defend its territorial integrity and combat terrorism, but he said reports of Russian security forces perpetrating human rights abuses, including the disappearance, torture and killings of civilians in Chechnya, are deeply troubling. He said the Russian government must be held accountable for the indiscriminate use of force there.

"We have not been perfect in our execution of the war on terror, but in my country, in the U.S., newspapers can put it on the front page," he said. "The Congress just said to the administration you are wrong in how you are treating the detainees and we want to change the law. You cannot open a newspaper here for a day without seeing a court case involving execution of the war of terror. That is accountability, that's what happens in a democracy: The executive may believe in many cases, rightly, that they are doing the right thing. But the newspapers, courts, the legislature all have the right to say to the executive: Stop. It's not right what you are doing. In Russia, this is not happening."

Until 2004, Mr. Craner served as Assistant Secretary for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor under then Secretary of State Colin Powell.