The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 raised hopes Russia would become more democratic and less authoritarian. In the 1990's the country's media, political parties, and non-governmental organizations gained a measure of independence from the Kremlin, but so did criminals. As VOA's Peter Fedynsky reports, top U.S. officials are concerned that Russia today is reverting to authoritarian rule, and wondering if relations are headed for a cooling-off.
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice recently remarked, "Clearly, the use of energy the way that it was used concerning Ukraine is a problem."
Then, Vice President Richard Cheney said, "Other actions by the Russian government have been counterproductive and could begin to affect relations with other countries."
In Moscow, President Vladimir Putin responded to recent high-level American criticism of Russia with a veiled reference to the United States as a predator. "We see what's happening in the world. Comrade wolf, so to speak, knows whom to eat. He eats and listens to no one."
At issue are perceptions about the state of Russian democracy. Secretary Rice says some elements of it "seem to be going the wrong way," including a crackdown on non-governmental organizations. President Putin insists Russia is implementing its own version of democratic rule. He calls it "sovereign democracy."
"What does that really mean?" asks Andrew Kuchins, Director of the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, D.C.
"And what does it mean actually for Russia's relations with Europe, the United States and some of its neighbors?"
In a recent examination of these questions at Carnegie, Sergei Markov, a Moscow-based political scientist with close Kremlin ties, deflected criticism of Russia with charges against the U.S.
"When I look at Iraq, I think it's not Russia which is going in the wrong direction; it's the United States that is going in the wrong direction," said Mr. Markov.
"In the wrong direction? Yes," agrees Michael McFaul, political science professor at Stanford University. However he notes, "I just don't understand why invoking America and Iraq somehow then, is an excuse for what is happening in Russia. Moreover, I would say that the comparison is not equal. Because unlike the Russian system today, I would say that for all of those ills of the American democracy, which I think are real, there are mechanisms for correction.
McFaul, who is opposed to the Bush administration, points to front-page articles in American newspapers critical of the government's domestic surveillance program. He says Russian media do not have similar independence to criticize the Kremlin.
Sergei Markov concedes that Russia is not a democracy, but insists Russians want it. "Public opinion supports, by the way, most of the characteristics of democracy, like free and fair elections, free media, right of opposition, and others."
Markov says the problem is that Russia's initial encounter with democracy in the 1990s was associated with anarchy -- mafia killings on city streets, fraud, corruption, illegal privatization and loss of international prestige. As a result, Markov says democracy is in fourth place as a priority among Russians behind concerns about security, stability, and the economy.
U.S. officials say democratic rule would address those concerns, and serve the interests not only of Russia, but other democracies.