WSJ: Russia Starts Think Tank on Democracy

think-tank.jpgRussia-Backed Think Tank To Study Western Democracy

A new Russian-backed think tank is being set up to publicly critique the state of U.S. and European democracy as Moscow goes on the offensive to counter what it views as unjustified Western criticism of its own political system.

A prominent lawyer says President Vladimir Putin endorsed his plan to open monitoring offices in New York and Paris to study the U.S. and French political systems and recommend improvements.

Western criticism of what many see as Kremlin backsliding on democratic principles has long rankled Mr. Putin and his allies. Recently, Moscow has taken a more assertive stance, firing back at countries whose governments have been particularly strident. The skirmishing has deepened the chill in Russia’s relations with the West.

Those tensions were underlined yesterday as the British government said it would suspend the work of two Russian offices of its cultural arm, the British Council, citing “blatant intimidation” by Russian authorities. Moscow accuses the organization of tax and legal violations, charges London rejects. “We saw similar actions during the Cold War, but frankly thought that they had been put behind us,” United Kingdom Foreign Secretary David Miliband told lawmakers.

Seeking to deflect Western attacks on their repressive system, Soviet propagandists frequently took the U.S. and its Cold War allies to task for what Moscow called human-rights violations. This time, the new think tank would provide “constructive” criticism, according to Anatoly Kucherena, the pro-Kremlin lawyer.

“You can only be a pupil for so long,” said Mr. Kucherena, a well-known trial lawyer named by Mr. Putin in 2006 to a special advisory body. Mr. Kucherena said he presented the idea to Mr. Putin at a meeting at the president’s official residence in May and won his support.

A Kremlin spokesman couldn’t be reached for comment. But Mr. Putin publicly plugged the idea at a summit in Portugal in October, saying European countries had long had such think tanks in Russia. “It is high time, given our increasing economic and financial potential, that the Russian Federation can do the same thing,” he said.

Mr. Kucherena said the new organization would scrutinize U.S. election law, the state of human rights, race relations and the American response to terrorism. He said there were troubling questions in all those areas. “The U.S. election system is intriguing,” he said. “In a country with such a democratic history it’s interesting that the outcome is decided by the electoral college and not by the people.”

He questioned the compatibility of capital punishment in some U.S. states with democracy and highlighted problems with America’s police and law-enforcement system. He cited the 1992 police beating of Rodney King and the subsequent riots in Los Angeles as an example of difficulties in race relations.

The New York and Paris offices of the Institute for Democracy and Cooperation will open with small staffs within two months, he said. Other offices in different European capitals will follow. Mr. Kucherena said he has received no Russian government funding so far, relying instead on contributions from local businessmen he declined to identify.

Mr. Putin has frequently lashed out at what he perceives as democratic shortcomings in the West when faced with attacks on his own record. Last month, he highlighted the problems of the 2000 U.S. presidential election in an interview.

At the G-8 summit in 2006, he told President Bush that Russia didn’t need the kind of democracy being built in Iraq. He has also publicly suggested that the White House engineered the dismissal of U.S. reporters deemed overly critical of the war in Iraq.

After European election observers criticized Russian votes in 2003 and 2004 as falling short of democratic standards, the Kremlin denounced the monitors as biased. The observers canceled plans to study December’s parliamentary elections in Russia, blaming Russia for setting up unprecedented obstacles to their mission.

Analysts say Moscow is keen to blunt what it sees as a constant trickle of often-hypocritical criticism. U.S.-based organizations such as Freedom House have regularly derided Russia’s political system as an imitation of democracy. This week, the Washington-based think tank described Russia as having an “entrenched authoritarian leadership.” It rated Russia “not free,” alongside Egypt, Angola and Tajikistan.

Mr. Kucherena denounced the Freedom House rankings as biased and said his institute will strive to be more objective. For its part, Freedom House director of studies Christopher Walker said, “We express deep skepticism about this initiative given the profile of the organization and who appears to be behind it.”

Wall Street Journal
January 18, 2008

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