Mon, Dec 22, 2003 - Page 6 News List

Russia's ties to the West weakening


Russia's romance with the West appears to be in trouble over its renewed assertiveness toward former Soviet republics and what many view as the Kremlin's growing authoritarian streak.

Europe and the US are taking the Kremlin to task, saying Russia is backsliding on democracy. Russia says the West is condescending and hypocritical, and the backlash has been felt in the victory of anti-Westerners in the Dec. 7 parliamentary election.

"It's obvious that relations are worsening," said Boris Nemtsov, a leader of the Union of Right Forces.

Nemstov's Western-oriented, liberal party failed to get into the lower house of parliament, the State Duma, in the election -- an election European observers described as unfair and a setback to democracy.

After the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in the US, Russia rode a wave of Western admiration for President Vladimir Putin's steadfast support of the US-led war on terror.

Now Moscow finds itself on the defensive.

Russia was the odd man out at a conference of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe earlier this month, when it refused to sign a final document in which it was criticized for failing to fulfill its 1999 pledge to withdraw troops from the ex-Soviet republics of Georgia and Moldova.

Earlier, the EU turned a cold shoulder to Putin's push for mutual, visa-free travel, and to Moscow's concerns that the expanding bloc is getting closer to Russia's frontiers. The EU has also set tough terms for Russia's joining the WTO.

Britain, Denmark and Greece have all rebuffed Russia's attempts to extradite citizens it accuses of grave crimes -- the exiled tycoons Boris Berezovsky and Vladimir Gusinsky, and Akhmed Zakayev, the envoy of Chechen rebel leader Aslan Maskhadov.

"The West hasn't made even tactical concessions to Russia to secure good strategic relations for the years ahead," said Alexei Arbatov, a liberal former lawmaker whose Yabloko party also failed to get elected. "Western policy toward Russia has helped strengthen anti-western, nationalistic sentiments."

The most obvious result was the strong showing in Parliament of the nationalist Homeland bloc in the election. The bloc, created with Kremlin encouragement to splinter the communist vote, campaigned on slogans of cracking down on big business, countering Western expansionism and protecting ethnic Russians abroad.

"There are no pro-Western forces in the new State Duma -- they all are either radically or moderately anti-Western," Arbatov said. "It will put pressure on the president ... pushing him in that direction."

Some fear that without positive feedback from the West, Putin might reverse his course of befriending the West and launch aggressive attempts to wrest ex-Soviet republics out of the Western orbit. Optimists hope the president will refrain from open confrontation, but even they don't expect the Kremlin to bow to Western pressure.

"After striving for integration into the West, Russia may now turn to forming its own zone of influence on former Soviet territory," said Dmitry Trenin of the Carnegie Endowment's Moscow office.

Putin bolstered relations with the US by welcoming the US military deployment in former Soviet republics of Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan during the US war in Afghanistan.

However, Russian officials have become increasingly impatient, urging Washington to set a deadline for getting out of the strategic, energy-rich region.

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