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Western Leaders Criticize Putin

DW staff (dc)September 29, 2004

More than 100 American and European foreign policy experts signed a letter protesting against Russian President Vladimir Putin's leadership. They say Putin is using the fight against terror to clamp down on democracy.

Under fireImage: AP

The protest letter, delivered to US President George W. Bush, as well as other government leaders in NATO and the European Union, accuses Putin of turning back to authoritarian rule.

Its 115 signatories include prominent politicians such as former Czech President Vaclav Havel, former Swedish Prime Minister Carl Bildt, and US senators John McCain and Joseph R. Biden.

The most prominent German politicians to sign the letter are Green party chief Reinhard Bütikofer, and the foreign policy expert of the Christian Democrat Union (CDU), Friedbert Pflüger. No politicians from Chancellor Gerhard Schröder's Social Democratic Party (SPD) signed it.

Democracy in name only?

Geiselnahme in russischer Schule, Beslan, Nordossetien
Russian solders with rifles outside the school in Beslan where over 300 students and adults were held hostage by Chechen attackersImage: AP

The letter expresses concern that Putin is using terrorist attacks by Chechen separatists, including the recent school hostage drama in Beslan, as a pretext for extending his control over political life in Russia.

"We are deeply concerned that these tragic events are being used to further undermine democracy in Russia," said the letter, which was published in full in the Financial Times Deutschland. "Russia's democratic institutions have always been weak and fragile. Since becoming president in January 2000, Vladimir Putin has made them even weaker."

The letter calls on western countries to place themselves "unambiguously on the side of democratic forces in Russia."

This week, Putin sent a draft law to parliament that will give him the right to nominate regional governors. He also introduced a draft resolution that would create a new blacklist of terrorist suspects subject to extradition. Both plans have raised concern in the West.

Putin faces little opposition in the Russian parliament, as his United Russia party holds more than two-thirds of the seats. Criticism of Putin in the Russian media is rare, as most independent media organizations have been shut down under his rule.

Breaking the silence

Until now, western leaders have been reserved in their criticism, with barely a word being uttered by the EU or the US government to protest human rights violations in Chechnya.

Germany has taken pains to cultivate close ties with Russia. On his last visit there, Schröder emphasized the friendly nature of his relationship with Putin. The two leaders presented a united front on the most important questions, including Putin's controversial handling of the Chechnya conflict.

Russia's UN ambassador, Andrey Denisov, said he took the criticism in the letter seriously, but added that it was important that there be enough "flexibility" in Russia's democracy to allow it to fight terrorism.

"Yes, we have to take seriously such opinions because they are being expressed by such distinguished persons," Denisov said. "We have to prove to our partners that they are mistaken or they are exaggerating the present state of affairs."