Putin's critics take aim as Russia steps into G8 limelight

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The Independent Online

Russia assumes the presidency of the G8 tomorrow for the first time, an event unimaginable 20 years ago when it was part of the Communist Soviet Union, and regarded capitalism as a dirty word. Through 2006, it will provide organisational leadership to the exclusive club which counts among its members the world's eight most-developed industrialised democracies.

The high point of Russia's presidency will be a full G8 summit at the opulent Konstantinovsky Palace in St Petersburg in mid-July when President Vladimir Putin will play host to Tony Blair, George Bush and the leaders of France, Germany, Italy, Canada and Japan.

That will be Mr Putin's chance to bask in the limelight and flaunt his credentials as an international statesman. For him, the summit is of crucial importance, and Moscow chairing the G8 at all is an enormous boost, a signal, in his eyes, that Russia is again respected on the world stage.

Although Russia's economy is not the eighth largest it is the biggest country in the world, still possesses a formidable nuclear arsenal and is a treasure-trove of natural resources. It has the world's largest gas reserves, its oil reserves are probably second only to Saudi Arabia and it is the biggest producer of nickel and the second-biggest source of aluminium.

In the past few years, its economy has grown by some 6 per cent a year, more than any other G8 member, and foreign investment in Russia is likely to top £10bn this year, up from £6.7bn last year. But its membership of the G8, let alone its presidency, is not without controversy.

Human rights groups, and politicians from different countries and of different political persuasions, believe Russia's democratic credentials are badly tarnished. They want its showcase St Petersburg summit boycotted and some have even suggested it should be expelled from the G8 altogether.

The list of charges levelled against Russia and, in particular, Mr Putin by critics is long:

MEDIA CONTROL

The Russian media is either directly or indirectly controlled by the Kremlin. The charge concerns state-run TV in particular, but also extends to most newspapers and radio stations.

MANAGED DEMOCRACY

Mr Putin's managed form of democracy pays only lip service to the concept and conceals creeping authoritarianism. This year, direct elections for regional governors were abolished and replaced with a dubious appointments system.

FUEL AS A WEAPON

Russia is using its enormous energy reserves to bully and influence close neighbours. Its state-controlled energy behemoth Gazprom is in a dispute with Kiev after it demanded a fourfold increase in the price it charges for natural gas. If Ukraine does not cede to Russia's will, Gazprom has threatened to turn off the tap at 10am on 1 January.

FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION

Mr Putin has filled the Kremlin with yes-men and does not tolerate dissent. Andrei Illarioniov, one of his closest economic advisers, resigned, saying he was no longer able to speak out freely. The Kremlin deals with opponents ruthlessly and is effectively renationalising the economy's commanding heights by stealth. Many cite the case of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, once Russia's richest man. Most of the oil giant he used to run, Yukos, is now in state hands and he is serving a harsh jail term in Siberia. The Kremlin says he was guilty of fraud. Sceptics say he was jailed because he was a political challenge to Mr Putin.

SINGLE PARTY

There is no real opposition to Mr Putin's United Russia party. Liberal politicians struggle to get beyond single-digit support and critics say election campaigns are overwhelmingly weighted in favour of the Kremlin.

CHECHNYA

Russian troops continue to commit human-rights atrocities in Chechnya and many civilians are kidnapped.

RELATIONS WITH IRAN

Russia is helping Iran build a nuclear reactor and has sold Tehran $1bn worth of weapons.

NGO CURBS

Critics say Russia is trying to drive foreign-funded human rights groups out of the country. A new regulation would erect significant barriers for foreign non-governmental organisations.

STRATEGIC ALLIES

Russia's choice of friends is dubious. Uzbekistan and Belarus are pariah states in the West but Moscow continues to back both of them solidly.

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