Bush urged to confront Putin in public on human rights

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Indy Politics

The US President George Bush cemented his softly-softly approach to his old friend Vladimir Putin yesterday, admitting he would not be tackling him on the state of Russian democracy or Chechnya at the G8 summit.

Mr Putin has been accused of rolling back democratic reforms and turning a blind eye to a brutal pro-Russian leader he supports in Chechnya. But Mr Bush disappointed human rights activists by saying he would only be discussing such issues in private with the Russian president.

His admission will be seen as a victory by a Kremlin that has made it clear it will not tolerate any public discussion of Russia's internal politics at the summit.

One official familiar with the Bush-Putin relationship, who declined to be named, said: "He [Bush] will tell Putin he has to raise it [democracy] for the sake of form and then they'll move on almost immediately like they always do." As a calculated sop to Russian human rights activists, Mr Bush held a long meeting with them at which he promised to convey their message to his Russian counterpart, albeit behind closed doors.

He heard activists tell him that they no longer lived in a free country and was handed photographs of Chechen children killed in a Russian missile attack which he took away with him.

Mr Bush appeared to lend his support to the jailed oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who is serving an eight-year jail term in a Siberian labour camp for tax fraud and embezzlement.

Many in the West believe Khodorkovsky was punished for his political opposition to the Kremlin. Mr Bush made a point of inviting a senior official in Mr Khodorkovsky's now defunct non-profit foundation to his meeting and in a symbolic gesture of support, the official, Irina Yasina, was seated next to the American president.

Hours later it was all smiles as Mr Bush and his wife Laura were seen joking and making small talk with a relaxed-looking Mr Putin and his wife Ludmila on the balcony of the 18th century Konstantinovsky Palace, the summit venue. The couples were due to dine together last night and the two men to hold a one-to-one meeting this morning.

Tanya Lokshina, the head of the Russian rights think-tank Demos, was one of the activists who met Mr Bush and though she said she was glad of the opportunity she said she wished the US President would start holding Mr Putin to account publicly. "Mr Bush says it is more effective to criticise Putin privately but I think his position is deficient. It [closed doors criticism] has been going on for years and it doesn't work."

Ms Lokshina handed Mr Bush three photographs of five Chechen children killed by a Russian missile. "What is happening in Chechnya right now is really frightening," she said. "The situation is out of control. People are being tortured, abducted and there are extra-judicial killings."

"They [the Americans] cannot keep their eyes shut to human rights violations in Chechnya. By neglecting to speak out they become complicit."

Ironically those who attended the meeting said Mr Bush had criticised Europe for being soft on Russia arguing that it was too dependent on Moscow for energy and so had muted its criticism.

St Petersburg was locked down last night ahead of the arrival of the other G8 leaders today. Its airspace and waterways were closed for anything non-G8-related and surface-to-air missile batteries were placed around the summit venue.

The police were not taking any chances with anti-globalisation protestors whose leaders said more than 200 demonstrators had been arrested ahead of a planned protest march today.