hits back over US claim of retreat from democracy
Putin ready to fix election, intelligence chief claims
testimony stirs fears of new arms race
Luke Harding in Moscow
Friday March 2, 2007
"That's my worry, is the march toward democracy, the way we understand it
... now being controlled in a way that it is less of a democratic process."
Relations between the US and Russia
appeared to sink to a new low yesterday after Moscow angrily dismissed accusations
that democracy in Russia had taken a "back step".
Russia's foreign ministry
called the accusation by Mike McConnell, Washington's national intelligence director,
in a speech to the US Senate's armed services committee on Tuesday, "outmoded"
and "totally groundless".
Mr McConnell, an expert on the former Soviet Union,
said Russia's president, Vladimir Putin, was preparing to fix next year's presidential
elections so that the Kremlin's preferred candidate would win. "The march to democracy
has taken a back step. And now there are more arrangements to control the process
and the populace and the parties and so on, to the point of picking the next leader
of Russia," Mr McConnell said, at a hearing to discuss global threats to the US.
Putin had surrounded himself with "extremely conservative" advisers suspicious
of America, he said.
Yesterday the Kremlin accused Mr McConnell of harbouring
obsolete and outmoded notions about Russia.
The intelligence chief's assessments
were "totally unfounded", the foreign ministry's spokesman, Andrei Krivtsov, said.
The exchange came amid a sharp deterioration in US-Russian relations to what analysts
said yesterday was probably their worst level since the US-led Nato bombing of
Serbia in 1999.
Moscow has been angered by the US administration's plans to
site two anti-missile interceptor and radar bases in Poland and the Czech Republic.
Putin has ridiculed America's claim that the sites are meant to deter a possible
rogue attack by North Korea or Iran and has said they are clearly aimed at Russia
and its vast nuclear arsenal.
Last month he delivered his most scathing attack
yet on US power. Speaking in Munich, he accused the US of acting unilaterally
and seeking to become the world's sole decision-making "master".
yesterday that public opinion on both sides was hardening.
"In Russia, Putin's
speech has produced a tremendous effect among those who want Russian primacy and
think in terms of Russia's empire," said Victor Kremenyuk, deputy director of
Moscow's US-Canada Institute. "In the US, a growing number of people think that
Russia has outwitted them. Instead of becoming a normal democratic state it has
become an energy superpower. They see it both as a threat to the US and its allies
Other observers said they expected the chill in US-Russian relations
to go on beyond the Bush-Putin era. "I think we are very close to an arms race,"
Ivan Safranchuk, head of the Moscow bureau of the World Security Institute, a
US thinktank, told the Guardian. "Neither side trusts the other. Russia reacts
to the missile defence sites. The US reacts to Russia's reaction."
newspaper Rossiiskaya Gazeta said on Wednesday that Russian scientists were alarmed
by the US's High-frequency Active Auroral Research Programme, or Haarp. They believed
US scientists were close to developing a system that would allow them to disrupt
an enemy's entire nuclear capability using ionic rays. Russia was determined to
develop a similar technology, the paper reported.
With increasing talk of a
new cold war, Russia's political parties, including the Communists, agreed this
week to suspend their differences on foreign policy.
"Russia has become stronger
and America doesn't like it," Konstantin Kosachev, the head of parliament's foreign
affairs committee, told Moskovsky Komsomolets, a mass-circulation daily. "They
still have the same notions from the 1990s, when American became the only political
power centre on the planet."
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