Prague, 11 February 2005 (RFE/RL) -- In unusually harsh comments, Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov lashed out yesterday at what he alleges is a worldwide campaign to "restore the atmosphere of the Cold War" by driving a wedge between Moscow and the West.
Of particular concern to Lavrov are purported attempts, in the United States and European media, at portraying Russia as an "enemy" of the West.
"Of course, that Russia has had -- and continues to have -- ill-wishers is not new to us," Lavrov wrote in a commentary published in the Moscow-based daily "Izvestiya."
"What surprises us, however, is that unlike its predecessors of the Cold War era, the current anti-Russian campaign is taking place...against the background of a dynamically developing partnership with the United States, the European Union, and NATO on a very broad range of issues," he added.
Among successful areas of cooperation between Russia and the West, Lavrov singles out the global war on terrorism.
Arguing that the terrorist threat has forced the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush itself to "take very harsh legislative and administrative measures against both U.S. and foreign nationals," the Russian minister objects to Western claims that civic liberties in his country are increasingly restricted.
As further evidence of Western hostility toward his country, Lavrov cites the recent interview that radical Chechen warlord Shamil Basaev gave to Britain's Channel 4.
Lavrov's spokesman, Aleksandr Yakovenko, on 4 February criticized Channel 4's decision to give Basaev television airtime, calling it a "deeply regrettable" initiative.
"What governments in the West need is a strong Russia that would develop dynamically. Instead of that, what they see is a quasi-Soviet society that lives in poverty and that is full of contradictions and anomalies." -- Viktor Kremenyuk, USA and Canada Institute at Russia's Academy of Sciences
"We view this action as yet another step in the informational support given to terrorists operating in the North Caucasus," he said. "We believe such an irresponsible step in spreading the views and threats of a person who is wanted by Interpol and whose name is on the UN Counter-Terrorism Committee list goes against the efforts of the international community to fight terrorism."
Without mentioning Britain by name, Lavrov in his article characterizes the fact that Basaev was able to air new threats against Russia as "leniency" toward terrorism and a blow to the "mutual trust" that he says exists between Moscow and its Western partners.
But not everyone in Russia shares Lavrov's views.
Viktor Kremenyuk, deputy director of the USA and Canada Institute at Russia's Academy of Sciences, says he finds Lavrov's accusations unfounded.
"It is absolutely true [that the West] is criticizing Russia and that this criticism is on the rise," Kremenyuk says. "But this is not because someone has decided to bring Russia, or relations with Russia, back to a state like the Cold War. What's happening is that Russia is not meeting the expectations of the overwhelming majority of Westerners, be they political leaders or not. Instead of becoming an active member of the community of developed countries, Russia is more and more drifting toward authoritarianism and economic stagnation. Were it not for our oil pipelines, we would be in complete stagnation. In short, that makes many people unhappy."
In his column, Lavrov slams the West's criticism of Russian President Vladimir Putin's recent political reforms, especially his decision to end direct elections for regional governors. Russia's top diplomat also flatly denies charges that independent media are being muzzled in his country.
Yet, Kremenyuk believes Western criticism is amply justified.
"To put it plainly, Russia is n-o-t doing its homework," he says. "What governments in the West need is a strong Russia that would develop dynamically. Instead of that, what they see is a quasi-Soviet society that lives in poverty and that is full of contradictions and anomalies. They also see what is basically a civil war going on in the North Caucasus. This is why I cannot see any anti-Russian element in this [Western] criticism. What I see is criticism toward things I, as a Russian citizen, do not like myself."
Kremenyuk says the fact that Lavrov's comments appeared just two weeks before the 24 February Bush-Putin summit in Bratislava is probably not accidental.
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice noted last week that the Kremlin had accumulated too much power and noted concerns about the impartiality of Russian judges -- a probable allusion to the fraud charges brought against Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the former head of Russian oil giant Yukos.
Kremenyuk believes the Russian leader would like to limit the scope of possible U.S. criticism to a minimum. In that context, he says, Lavrov's commentary can be seen as a "clumsy diplomatic move" that follows talks he had last week with his U.S. counterpart in Ankara.
"[Lavrov's] article is probably meant for the [upcoming Bratislava] summit. Since his meeting with Condoleezza Rice, Lavrov knows perfectly well that Bush will ask [Putin] what is going on in Russia. Bush is worried by developments in Russia," Kremenyuk says. "Therefore, one has to wonder whether [Lavrov's] article is not aimed at making Bush appear as an 'enemy' of Russia [if he voices criticism]."
Whatever the objectives pursued by Lavrov's commentary, Kremenyuk says he believes the attack is unlikely to deter Bush "from seeking answers to his questions."
Other observers, however, doubt the U.S. president will criticize his Russian counterpart.
In a commentary published today in the English-language daily "The Moscow Times," Gregory Feifer says the two leaders have too many things in common at the moment to put bilateral relations in jeopardy.