A group of 115 American and European foreign policy specialists, including former and current elected leaders, accused Russian President Vladimir Putin of undermining democracy in Russia and turning the country back toward authoritarian rule.

The protest was delivered in a blunt letter to President Bush and other government leaders in NATO and the European Union. It was signed by a broad range of leaders including former Czech president Vaclav Havel, former Swedish prime minister Carl Bildt, and Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.).

The letter reflects mounting alarm that Putin is undoing nearly 14 years of democratic reforms that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union. The signers expressed concern that Putin is using the fight against terrorists and the killings of hundreds at a school in Beslan this month as a pretext for tightening his grip over the country's political life. They urged the Bush administration and other governments to "recognize" that their efforts to encourage Russia's move toward democracy are "failing."

"We are deeply concerned that these tragic events are being used to further undermine democracy in Russia," the letter said. "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 called on Western nations to place themselves "unambiguously on the side of democratic forces in Russia."

Russia's U.N. ambassador, Andrey Denisov, said he took the criticism seriously but said Russia is struggling to fashion a democracy that contains sufficient "flexibility" to enable it to combat an enemy that will engage in extreme terrorism. "Yes, we have to take seriously such opinions because they are being expressed by such distinguished persons," he said of the letter. "We have to prove to our partners that they are mistaken or they are exaggerating the present state of affairs."

The American signatories represented a wide spectrum of political thought in the United States, including neoconservative analysts and policymakers and a top adviser to Sen. John F. Kerry, the Democratic presidential nominee.

"We're concerned that Putin is getting a blank check," said Richard C. Holbrooke, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations who is advising Kerry. "I don't think the Bush administration has got much in exchange for this blank check. We need good relations with Russia, but we ought to have some standards here."

The letter was also signed by conservative analysts and political figures, some of whom also feel the Bush administration has not been forceful enough in confronting Putin as he has increased his power over the country's parliament, energy industry and independent national television channels. McCain warned on the Senate floor this month of a "creeping coup" against democracy in Russia.

Bush has sent conflicting signals since the Beslan killings, analysts say. At a memorial service for the victims, Bush praised Putin as "a man I admire." The following day Putin ended the popular election of governors and independent legislators. Bush remained silent on the issue for two days before saying that he was "concerned about the decisions that are being made in Russia that could undermine democracy."