MOSCOW—In the weeks before the Group of Eight summit in St. Petersburg, two things went on at once: There was an intense public relations effort to improve Russia's image and, along with it, a widening crackdown on democracy and individual freedoms. The reality, not obscured by the PR, is that the Russian government has resorted recently to police practices strongly reminiscent of those used some three decades ago in the Soviet Union.
On the public relations side, one of the most influential Kremlin aides, Vladislav Surkov, met with Western journalists to explain that Russian "sovereign democracy" is not much different from democratic practices of the Western countries. "Sovereign democracy" is a Kremlin coinage that conveys two messages: first, that Russia's regime is democratic and, second, that this claim must be accepted, period. Any attempt at verification will be regarded as unfriendly and as meddling in Russia's domestic affairs.
About a week after Surkov's media session, President Vladimir Putin attended the "civil G-8," an international conference of human rights and nongovernmental organizations. For two hours he listened politely to the participants' concerns and told them that he was pleased to be among like-minded people and glad to talk about human rights in Russia. He then spent three more hours at dinner with a group of conference members representing international public organizations.
But the performance wasn't entirely convincing. The day after their meeting with the president, representatives of many leading Russian and foreign human rights organizations issued a statement in which they expressed "deep concern about the situation with human rights in Russia" and cited a "systemic crisis in the field of human rights and democratic institutions." "Concealment of these issues," the statement says, "will promote further degradation of the situation with human rights and the erosion of democracy in Russia."
These concerns are fully justified by the government's consistent effort to clog up every channel for public participation in politics and to block every opening for the emergence of an autonomous force on the Russian political scene. In the course of Putin's presidency, such fundamental elements of democracy as separation of powers, an independent judiciary, the rule of law and press freedom have been gravely undermined. Over the past year and a half the Kremlin has conducted an ongoing electoral reform aimed at consolidating the dominance of the pro-Kremlin party United Russia. The most recent legislative initiatives further broaden the administrative and legal authority to exclude candidates from party slates and to bar or remove parties from the race altogether. According to a Communist deputy in the Duma, the Russian legislation provides more than 60 pretexts for eliminating the unwanted.
In one of the most notorious recent innovations, the practice of early voting has been reintroduced after being removed from Russian law just a few years ago. The practice, in which ballot boxes are brought to voters prior to the election so they can vote outside regular polling stations, where no public observer can watch them, provides an easy way to rig the election results. During the Belarusan presidential elections in March, the "early vote" accounted for at least 20 percent of the turnout, with President Alexander Lukashenko winning over 80 percent of it.
A new alarming development is the use of police-state practices. Much as they did when President Richard Nixon visited Moscow in 1974, authorities are arresting and detaining public activists, with no legal basis for doing so. Three decades ago Communist authorities prevented dissidents and refuseniks from contacting the members of Nixon's delegation. This month, in the days before the G-8 summit, more than 100 people were intimidated, harassed or beaten by the police in various Russian cities. In some cases their passports were taken away from them for no legal reason. Some were young radicals headed for St. Petersburg to rally against the summit; others were on their way to Moscow to attend "The Other Russia," a meeting of Kremlin political opponents and human rights NGOs held Tuesday and Wednesday.
"The Other Russia" was attended by a few prominent foreign diplomats as well as U.S. administration officials who had been warned by the Russian authorities that they should stay away from the event: A high-ranking Kremlin official said that attendance would be treated as an "unfriendly gesture."
Foreign officials ignored the Kremlin message and attended the event, at which four young activists were arbitrarily arrested and a German journalist beaten when he tried to photograph the arrests. Thus it's likely that Putin's PR effort was lost on the foreign dignitaries who attended "The Other Russia" -- just as it is lost on anyone who has been paying heed to actual developments in Russia rather than to the official pre-summit rhetoric. Increasingly, the work of improving Russia's image seems a ritual gesture rather than a serious objective of the government.
The country's abundant energy assets have freed it to practice "sovereign democracy" and act with little or no regard for the judgments of outsiders. By no means does Russia or its wealthy elite want to be isolated. Putin wants recognition of Russia's leading position on the world scene and respect for its economic and geopolitical interests. But he demands that it be recognized as is, not at the cost of softening his increasingly authoritarian policies.