How should West deal with Russia at G-8?

Should the world's major democracies speak out loudly to express concern over the consolidation of autocracy in Russia?

With two major summits scheduled to be held in the next two and a half weeks, this question has come into particularly sharp relief. The European Union-United States summit, slated to take place Wednesday and Thursday in Vienna, and the G-8 summit, which Russia will host in St. Petersburg beginning July 11, are forums where the world's major democracies will have the opportunity to send a clear signal to Russia's leadership. The community of democracies should seize this chance to reiterate its expectations on Russia's democratic performance.

Complicating matters, however, is the subject of energy security, which is in the forefront of the Europeans' minds and the top agenda item at the G-8 summit. The European Union, which is increasingly reliant on Russian energy resources, is not eager to rub the Russian leadership the wrong way. At the same time, EU member states know they would be better served by a more democratically accountable Russia, which over the long term would be seen as a less capricious and more reliable partner. Although less dependent on Russian energy resources, the US, with its own addiction to oil, is likewise walking a fine line in encouraging democratic accountability in energy-rich but democracy-poor states around the world.

Russia is counted among the important states that rely on the energy sector as their principal economic engine. At the same time, it features among the world's most poorly governed, repressive, and corrupt regimes. Other such countries in the former Soviet space include Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan. Saudi Arabia and a number of other Gulf States fit this profile in the Middle East.

The West has pursued a strategy of engagement with Russia, which was formally invited in 1998 to what was then the "G-7" (Group of 7). The "G-8" was established to intensify engagement with Russia and to provide a mechanism that would encourage the country to pursue democratic and market reforms.

Russia's leadership bristles at criticism of its democratic performance and argues that it is pursuing a version of democracy appropriate for Russia. However, irrespective of the label attached to the Kremlin's political program – whether a "dictatorship of law," "managed democracy," or a variant of a Eurasian leadership model – the features of Russia's political system today are not consistent with pluralistic, transparent, and participatory politics. With virtually no exceptions, the authorities' approach has resulted in a dramatic shrinking of public space and an emasculation of any sector capable of holding the Kremlin to account.

Over the past five years, Russia's leadership has effectively established control over national broadcast media such that there is now almost no independent or critical comment on the authorities' decisions or performance. In the past weeks, a more vigorous campaign has been undertaken to squeeze the independent print media, including ownership and management takeovers at such well-regarded publications as Novaya Gazeta, Nezavisimaya Gazeta, and Kommersant.

The Kremlin has also reined in regional governors and the state Duma, in the process weakening what should be an institutional counterweight to the executive. The judiciary suffers from pervasive corruption and has been unable to establish itself as an independent power capable of advancing the rule of law. Meanwhile, the role of the country's security services and their penetration into economic and political life have grown to the point where Russian observers question whether they could be brought back under democratic civilian control.

Some argue that speaking too loudly about the strengthening of autocracy in Russia is counterproductive because it will cause the authorities to respond with even more repression. But the Kremlin is not cracking down on independent media and crushing political opposition and the nongovernmental- organizations community because international bodies and monitoring organizations are raising these issues.

The smothering of these independent Russian sectors instead has more to do with immunizing from scrutiny the leadership group that has arrogated power to itself and with protecting the vast resources it has acquired.

With so little independent domestic scrutiny of political and economic decisionmaking in Russia, it is impossible to view the massive and lucrative energy sector in a vacuum, or to delink Russia's energy ambitions from the issue of democratic accountability.

The Russian leadership clearly finds a discussion about its repressive and nontransparent governance uncomfortable. However, the reality is that independent voices within Russia are being silenced and can no longer be heard.

For this reason, it is essential that the world's democracies – the transatlantic community in particular – speak with one clear voice on redirecting the trajectory of Russia's democratic development.

Russia's leadership is hoping the West will turn a blind eye to its tightening autocratic grip. But ignoring the problem will not solve it. A strong message from the world's leading democracies should be heard by the Kremlin and, most important, by wider Russian society alike.

Christopher Walker is director of studies at Freedom House. He is coeditor of Freedom House's annual survey of democratic governance, "Countries at the Crossroads."

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