Putin Critics Convene as G-8 Nears

By Peter Finn
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, July 12, 2006

MOSCOW, July 11 -- A coalition of opposition figures from across the political spectrum gathered at a Moscow hotel Tuesday to lambaste President Vladimir Putin. The Kremlin warned foreign diplomats not to attend the event -- a caution that was ignored.

The "Other Russia" conference was held before this weekend's summit of leaders of the major Western industrial powers and Russia in St. Petersburg.

"What we want is leaders to stop treating Putin like he's a democrat," said Garry Kasparov, the former chess master and one of the organizers of the meeting.

Participants said they hoped to spotlight what they described as the growing authoritarianism of the Kremlin and official intolerance for any kind of dissent. But they doubted that anyone in the West would act on their concerns.

"I think the mere fact that the meeting is being held is already a result, but I don't expect anything more," said Sergey Kovalev, a longtime dissident who was freed from a Soviet prison by then-President Mikhail Gorbachev and became a member of parliament in the 1990s. "I don't think the conference will change the attitude of Western leaders because they are bought and sold even easier than Eastern leaders."

In the run-up to the meeting, one of Putin's key aides, Igor Shuvalov, told the Financial Times Deutschland, "If high officials take part, we will view this as an unfriendly gesture."

Daniel Fried, U.S. assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs, attended the meeting, as did ambassadors from Canada and Britain.

"Let's put it this way: If Russian officials attended a summit organized by the Democrats . . . the American opposition, we wouldn't regard it as anything other than doing their job," Fried told the Associated Press.

When British Ambassador Tony Brenton addressed the conference, his speech was interrupted by a man shouting "Glory to the Empire!" The man was hustled out of the meeting and pummeled by young activists from the National Bolshevik Party, a radical nationalist group that the Kremlin labels fascist. The presence of the party led some opposition politicians and human rights activists to boycott the meeting. The conference was partly underwritten by the National Endowment for Democracy, a private, federally funded organization that promotes democracy world-wide.

"Our main hope is that it will help promote Russian civil society," said Carl Gershman, the endowment's president.

Asked about the controversial presence of National Bolsheviks leader Eduard Limonov, Gershman said, "The overwhelming majority of people here are people with long-standing democratic credentials and if they can be here, that's the best guideline I can follow."

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