Russia recently assumed the rotating presidency of the Group of Eight industrialized nations, prompting a discussion about whether that country shares the civic values of the organization's original members.The United States, in particular, is concerned about a new law aimed at curtailing the activities of Russia's non-governmental organizations.

As G-8 finance ministers met recently in Moscow to discuss oil supplies and other global economic issues, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice appeared on American television to say "some elements of democratization in Russia," as she put it, "seem to be going the wrong way." She says, "Clearly, the law on non-governmental organizations is a problem. Clearly, the use of energy in the way that it was used concerning Ukraine is a problem. And Russia is now the president of the G-8 process. We would hope for behavior that is befitting."

Russia's Democratic Values

Secretary Rice added that Russia as a whole, its leaders and people alike, needs to fully integrate the democratic values of the original G-8 members into the country's future.

Russian human rights activist Ludmilla Alexeyva has been promoting those values in her country since the 1970s. She says that democratic nations protect non-governmental organizations and the institutions of civil society. But Russia, she says, is doing the opposite. She lists some of the activities that my be curtailed by the new NGO law, which goes into effect in April.  "The Moscow Helsinki Group monitors the situation in prisons; it monitors the rights of women and elections so that administrative structures do not use their authority to falsify the intentions of citizens. The law primarily targets such organizations," says Ludmilla Alexeyva.

Andrew Kuchins, a Russia expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, recently returned to the United States after two-and-a-half years at the organization's Moscow office. He says wealthy industrialized nations have a major interest in Russian democracy.

According to Kuchins, "The fundamental argument as to why we should care about Russia being democratic gets back to democratic peace theory, I suppose. Democratic nations tend to be more prosperous; democratic nations tend to be less aggressive in their foreign policies toward their neighbors. Democratic nations generally tend to observe human rights more thoroughly than non-democratic nations."

Centralized Government

Kuchins says Russia's initial encounter with democracy in the 1990s was associated with chaos -- mafia killings on city streets, fraud, corruption, illegal privatization and loss of international prestige. Since then, President Vladimir Putin has pursued what he calls sovereign democracy, which Andrew Kuchins says is long on Russian sovereignty and short on democracy as it is understood by the G-8. Instead, he says, Mr. Putin has centralized authority by diminishing the independence of his country's media outlets and political opposition.

However, Russia expert Anatol Lieven at the New America Foundation, a Washington, D.C. think tank, says centralization has not made the Kremlin as powerful as it once was. He says, "Actually, the power of the central state remains extremely weak when it comes to influencing what really happens on the ground in most areas of Russia, because the state bureaucracy is too corrupt. It's too in league with local elites, with local businessmen. So many of the orders given from the Kremlin never actually have any effect on the ground at all."

Human rights activist Ludmilla Alexeyeva asks why bureaucrats should control a Russian citizen's every step and every day. She says Russia's new law on non-governmental organizations not only strengthens official structures, but also contradicts the accepted practice of democratic countries.

Alexeyeva contends, "The institutions of civil society in normal contemporary democracies control bureaucratic structures in order to reduce the level of corruption, to monitor and stop human rights violations on the part of bureaucracies and individual bureaucrats. But this law turns all of that upside down."

The Power of the Middle Class

Many analysts say a necessary element of democracy is a middle class, which serves as a check and balance against the abuse of power. According to Anatol Lieven, rising prosperity is creating such a class in Russia.

Mr. Lieven says, "I think the Putin administration is not democratic. I think it is sincerely developmentalist. But I also think that there are many, many reasons to doubt that it will actually succeed in its program, [which has] to do with many things that we see around large parts of the world: state weakness, corruption, lack of intelligence and dynamism in the bureaucratic elites, and a whole range of issues."

"I don't think the Russians are fundamentally less democratic or non-democratic," says Andrew Kuchins of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "The focus right now - initially it was on survival, now it's more on getting wealthy and getting prosperous. And the middle class is growing in the Russian Federation. That's something that gives me optimism about the future, because as more people have investments in property that they want to defend, I think over time that will create a greater demand for more efficient, more transparent political and legal institutions in which they can do that."

Andrew Kuchins notes that the demand for a durable and sustainable Russian democracy will take time and must come from below. In the short term, he says, Russia's membership in the G-8 could help accelerate that country's democracy.

This story was first broadcast on the English news program,VOA News Now. For other Focus reports click here.