Spat over democracy

The Kremlin tells Washington not to meddle in its response to the Beslan crisis, while the White House warns Moscow to maintain a "balance of power."

By Julian Borger - Ewen MacAskill

Published September 16, 2004 2:14PM (EDT)

A row between Russia and America over Moscow's response to the Beslan tragedy escalated Wednesday when George W. Bush voiced concern that a sweeping Kremlin security overhaul "could undermine democracy."

Hours after Russia warned Washington not to meddle in its internal affairs, Bush expressed disquiet at moves by his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, to fight Chechen terrorism by amassing more power for himself. "As governments fight the enemies of democracy, they must uphold the principles of democracy," the president said. "I'm  concerned about the decisions that are being made in Russia that could undermine democracy." His remarks hinted at U.S. unease that Putin could use the "war on terror" to roll back post-Soviet reform.

Putin's chief initiative in response to the carnage at Beslan, blamed on Chechen militants, has involved abolishing elections for both constituency M.P.'s and regional governors, and appointing the latter himself.

Bush warned: "Great democracies have a balance of power between central governments and local governments, a balance of power within central governments between the executive branch and the legislative branch and the judicial branch."

The issue is the biggest diplomatic spat between Russia and the U.S. for four years, in which relations between Putin and Bush have been relatively good.

But when Colin Powell, the U.S. secretary of state, accused the Kremlin earlier Wednesday of "pulling back on some democratic reforms," it drew a sharp riposte from Sergei Lavrov, Russia's foreign minister. "The processes that are underway in Russia are our internal affair," he said.

Although Powell's rebuke was relatively mild, the Russian government is not in the mood to accept such criticism so soon after the Beslan atrocity, in which 320 people died, half of them children.

Lavrov said the U.S. had no right to impose its model of democracy. "And it is at least strange that, while talking about a certain 'pulling back,' as he [Powell] put it, on some of the democratic reforms in the Russian Federation, he tried to assert yet one more time the thought that democracy can only be copied from someone's model," Lavrov said, adding pointedly, in view of the outcome of the U.S. 2000 election: "We, for our part, do not comment on the U.S. system of presidential elections, for instance." He also pointed to repressive measures in the U.S. after Sept. 11. The U.S. introduced a homeland security law that reversed previous legal rights, and had held hundreds at Guantánamo Bay in Cuba and the Bagram airbase in Afghanistan for more than two years without trial.

The outgoing European Union commissioner, Chris Patten, was more outspoken than U.S. officials, telling the European parliament yesterday that a resolution of the Chechen conflict lay in farsighted and humane policies, rather than in reversing democracy. He hoped "the government of the Russian Federation will not conclude that the only answer to terrorism is to increase the power of the Kremlin."

The British government has studiously stayed out of the row. The Foreign Office decided last week to postpone its annual report that was to be published Thursday, which would have been highly critical of human rights in Chechnya.

The British foreign secretary, Jack Straw, has so far refused to comment on the changes in Russia. Asked on the BBC last week, he said it was inappropriate so soon after Beslan.

Julian Borger

Julian Borger is a correspondent for the Guardian.

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Ewen MacAskill

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