Taras Chaban: Europe's leaders must start standing up to Putin

They should not be fooled by the pro-democratic rhetoric of the Russian government

An eagerly awaited summit of Presidents Bush and Putin took place in Slovakia yesterday. On both sides of the Atlantic it was previewed as a showdown, a defining moment not only for Russo-American relations but as an indication of how Bush's foreign policy would be conducted during the second term.

Even before the meeting at Bratislava Castle, the US President had expressed, in his most outspoken language yet on Russia, Washington's concerns about the reversal of democratic reforms and the rule of law. During a speech in Brussels he also urged European Union governments to place democracy at the heart of their dialogue with the Putin government.

Putin was quick to offer reassurance yesterday about these fears being "unfounded". But Bush is right to be alarmed about the safety of democratic institutions and the behaviour of the Putin government towards Russia's neighbouring states. Bush is also right to lecture the EU's most powerful states that they need to adopt as strong a tone as Washington seems to be doing in their dealings with Moscow.

Vladimir Putin came to power on the promise of resolving the conflict in the southern republic of Chechnya. Although we no longer see the conflict on our television screens, it is far from resolved and should be a cause of grave concern for all of us.

Putin's government may have justified concerns about the rapid privatisation of the economy that began under Boris Yeltsin and the scale of tax evasion that continues today. However, his government's corrective actions are increasingly directed against those who support democratic opposition. Putin seems to focus on individuals who oppose him politically as opposed to adopting policies that would clamp down on tax evasion while at the same time reassuring investors. Boris Berezovsky managed to escape to London. The Yukos boss Mikhail Khodorkovsky was not so lucky.

Nor has the Putin government been shy about meddling in the internal affairs of its neighbours. Moscow encouraged and supported a corrupt government in the breakaway region of Abkhazia, keeping independent Georgia divided. Putin openly supported Viktor Yanukovych, the original, pro-government winner of the discredited Ukrainian presidential elections. Moscow's favoured candidate came from a government that stood accused of corruption, media harassment and even the killings of journalists. Putin congratulated Mr Yanukovych on his win before the official results were announced, disregarding the concerns of international observers or the due process of law represented by the Supreme Court of Ukraine.

Western governments should not be fooled by the pro-democratic rhetoric of the Russian government. We heard more of that yesterday when the President insisted: "Russia has made its choice in favour of democracy."

What we need to see are clear actions that support the words, and we must see these actions now. There must at least be a small chance for Russian democratic parties to develop and strengthen before the next presidential elections. Yet surprisingly we have heard little from the heads of government of the biggest EU states on this subject.

One would expect them to neither hesitate nor tire of stressing to Putin the importance of upholding democratic values in Russia. But the European Union has yet to establish or follow a consistent policy towards the Russian Federation. Clearly it is difficult for the all 25 EU leaders to reach a complete consensus. But a coherent line should be possible since we all agree on the basic principles: free elections, free press and human rights.

And there are practical steps that can be taken. Russia's democratic institutions and parties must be encouraged and supported. Aid should be made available to support independent newspapers, TV and radio channels. There should be a firm indication from the EU of the consequences that the Russian government faces should it fail to grant the minimum freedoms expected of a democratic society. These consequences could include higher trade tariffs, blocking Russian membership in the World Trade Organisation and exclusion from the G8 group of industrialised nations.

The British government was actively supportive of Central European countries in their desire to join the European Union. It should continue to lead the way and support the democratic governments in Ukraine and Georgia in their quest for membership. Stable and democratic neighbours are the best guarantee of democracy in Russia itself.

One Russian friend likes to tell me a joke. We used to have a two-party system in Russia, he says - a Communist Party and a KGB Party. The KGB Party won and now Russia has a one-party system.

This is not what the Russian people fought for in August 1991.

The author is a Ukrainian investment banker and was closely involved in Viktor Yuschenko's election campaign

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