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17th Feb 2019

US-Russia war of words hijacking G8 'climate' summit

US president George Bush has set the scene for a showdown with Russia's Putin at the G8 summit in Germany today (6 June), with a speech in Prague on Tuesday saying Moscow has "derailed" democracy and reviling the repression of the old Soviet Union.

"In Russia, reforms that were once promised to empower citizens have been derailed, with troubling implications for democratic development," Mr Bush said at a meeting with dissidents from around the world in the Czernin Palace in the Czech capital.

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"America can maintain a friendship and push a nation toward democracy at the same time. We're also applying that lesson to our relationships with Russia and China," he added, in one of the few direct references to Vladimir Putin's country during the address.

But the speech was full of thinly-veiled allusions to other contemporary Russian issues, such as the Kremlin's threat to point nuclear missiles at Europe or its argument that western talk of values is an attempt to undermine its re-emergence as a petro-based superpower.

"Democracies address problems through the political process, instead of blaming outside scapegoats," Mr Bush said. "Some say that ending tyranny means 'imposing our values'...That is refuted by the fact that every time people are given a choice, they choose freedom."

The US president also voiced ongoing support for colour revolutions - peaceful victories by democratic forces in post-Soviet states. "Freedom can be resisted and freedom can be delayed, but freedom cannot be denied," he said. "We saw it when Ukrainians in orange scarves demanded that their ballots be counted."

And he spoke harshly of Mr Putin's predecessors. "Democracy was interrupted, first by the Nazis and then by the Communists, who seized power in a shameful coup that left the foreign minister dead in the courtyard of this palace," Mr Bush recalled, mentioning "the long darkness of Soviet occupation."

Will Putin fire back?

The Kremlin has given a muted response so far, with Putin spokesman Dmitri Peskov at the G8 venue in Heiligendamm, Germany, on Tuesday night telling press that "One cannot agree with the opinion of Bush, that democratic reforms in Russia have been derailed."

But the G8 summit itself could see sharper rhetoric, as Mr Bush and Mr Putin square off over US plans to build a nuclear missile shield in Poland and the Czech republic.

At last year's G8 in St Petersburg, Putin made fun of Bush's talk of democracy by saying "We certainly would not want to have the same kind of democracy that they have in Iraq," in reference to the hundreds of thousands of civilian lives lost since the US invaded in 2003.

The Prague speech gives critics more ammunition. "At a polling station in Baghdad, I was struck by the words of an Iraqi - he had one leg - and he told a reporter 'I would have crawled here if I had to.' Was democracy - I ask the critics, was democracy imposed on that man?" Mr Bush asked.

Deja vu

Other parallels between St Petersburg and Heiligendamm can also be drawn. St Petersburg's official agenda - on energy security - was overshadowed by the 2006 war in Lebanon. The Heiligendamm agenda - on climate change - is in danger of being overshadowed by the missile shield row.

Last year's G8 made big statements about rich countries' help for the poor, with German host Angela Merkel this year pledging to boost aid by €3 billion in 2008 to 2011 to set an example. But charities in 2006 and in 2007 say that headline pledges are not actually being paid out.

St Petersburg also made promises on the fight against corruption. But ahead of Ms Merkel's summit NGO Transparency International wrote in a report that "rhetoric still largely exceeds real action. With far reaching consequences, this failure undermines G8's credibility in calling on others to improve governance."

Meanwhile, deep-rooted divisions between G8 members make the summit unlikely to see a breakthrough on Kosovo or the civil war in Darfur, despite recent remarks in favour of Sudan sanctions by EU top diplomat Javier Solana and a similar appeal by Nobel laureate archbishop Desmond Tutu in Brussels on Tuesday.

The mob factor

One difference between St Petersburg and Heiligendamm has already become apparent, however. In Russia, most anti-G8 protestors were arrested on trains before they reached town, with a hadnful herded into a remote stadium in the St Petersburg harbour and other small groups chased round the streets.

In Germany, thousands of protestors have been tussling with police in the nearby port of Rostock since the weekend. And in Heiligendamm an alternative summit of 1,500 people drawn mostly from NGOs also kicks off today, with thousands of demonstrators expected to march on the town.

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