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Russia: Observers Say Anti-Western Sentiment A Constant Of Putin Presidency

  • Gregory Feifer

Recent incidents of foreigners being expelled from Russia have fueled reports of a rise in anti-Western sentiment within the channels of government bureaucracy. But rights groups and other observers say the apparent increase in visa troubles and other problems is in fact nothing new, and that antipathy toward the West has been a constant under Vladimir Putin's presidency. As RFE/RL Moscow correspondent Gregory Feifer reports, the issue may prove a factor in the parliamentary and presidential elections ahead.

Moscow, 31 January 2003 (RFE/RL) -- In Russia, Westerners might be feeling less welcome than they used to.

In recent weeks, Moscow has kicked 27 Peace Corps volunteers out of Russia, saying the country no longer needs their services and even accusing two members of spying.

The Organization for Cooperation and Security in Europe was asked to close its mission in the war-torn region of Chechnya after Moscow refused to extend its mandate.

And an American labor activist had her visa revoked without explanation by passport officials at a Moscow airport. The activist, who had lived in the country since 1992, had recently helped hire a lawyer to represent striking Russian airline workers.

Such incidents -- and others like them -- have fueled speculation that anti-Westernism is on the rise in Russian officialdom.

But observers in Moscow say such sentiments are nothing new, and that anti-Western bias is a constant in Vladimir Putin's Russia. Moreover, they say, the issue is likely to become even more prominent in the months ahead as pro- and anti-Western political forces square off in this election year.

Lyudmila Alekseyeva chairs the Moscow Helsinki Group rights organization. She says anti-Westernism is a constant variable in Russian politics: "It was especially evident after September 11, when the president said the general line of Russian policy would be integration with the Western world. The political establishment resists that very much. That's sometimes less visible, sometimes more, but it's generally very constant. We have a very anti-Western political establishment."

The bias appears to stretch beyond Western people to Western principles. Alekseyeva says her group is viewed with suspicion in part because its ideals of human rights and personal dignity are also Western values. Financing from the West is especially suspect. The government did away with tax breaks for human rights groups last November.

"It's just a desire to put everything and everyone under control," Alekseyeva said. "The Duma (lower house) is already under control. Political parties are already under control. The Federation Council (upper house) is already under control. Now we're (nongovernmental organizations) left. It's an attempt to put us under control because, of course, financing from the West gives us economic independence from our authorities."

Anna Neistat, director of the Human Rights Watch Moscow office, agrees the government's attitude toward Westerners has not changed markedly since Putin's election. She says the government issues general criticism of her organization because of the going idea that "the West shouldn't mess with Russia's internal affairs."

Vladimir Pribylovsky is president of the Panorama political research group. He too says the latest expulsions do not represent a change in policy and must be seen as individual cases: "These anti-Western feelings are more or less evenly distributed among a certain part of the bureaucracy -- especially those coming out of the power structures. That they have [recently] become visible just means there have been more excuses. For example, Western observers [like the OSCE] simply get in the way of carrying out the 'counterterrorist' operation in Chechnya as wished."

The recent incidents come as the U.S. flexes its muscles on the issue of Iraq. The Kremlin has stated its opposition to a war on Baghdad, but is relatively powerless to influence Washington's decision making. This feeling of impotence may serve to heighten anti-American sentiment in Russia. It may also play to the advantage of Putin, who rose to power with promises to restore Russia's status as a great power.

At the same time, however, the Russian president has positioned himself as an ally of the West since the 11 September attacks on the U.S. and the subsequent war on terrorism. He has made a number of unprecedented concessions to Washington -- agreeing to the deployment of U.S. forces in Central Asia and Georgia, providing the U.S. with intelligence on Al-Qaeda, and allowing Washington to withdraw from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty.

Such moves have raised protests from many of Putin's own government appointees -- mainly former security and military officials who spent much of their careers in a system built on distrust of the West. The anti-Westernist camp includes members of Putin's so-called "Saint Petersburg" group, such as former KGB colleague and current Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov.

These officials, many of whom now boost Putin's authority from positions in the upper ranks of state agencies, have run up against pro-Western economic advisers and others favoring liberal values. These include such influential officials as Economy and Trade Minister German Gref, Finance Minister Aleksei Kudrin, and presidential Chief of Staff Aleksandr Voloshin.

Duma Deputy Boris Nadezhdin, a member of the liberal Union of Right Forces Party, says the presidential administration and the government are witnessing an ongoing struggle between the two groups.

"In that sense, it's possible to interpret events: Depending on who has more influence with the president, it's possible to talk about the top bureaucracy's leaning toward the direction of Europe, away from the West and so on," he said.

Nadezhdin says both sides are currently seeking to expand. Although anti-Western measures are currently making headlines, he says pro-Western voices can still be heard -- and that Putin may be attempting to strike a palatable balance between the two: "I wouldn't say that a decision has been made, let's say in the direction of a large degree of patriotism or in the other direction, but there's a constant battle being waged on that field."

He adds that Putin's ultimate choice may depend on whether he decides to pick one side or another to back him in presidential elections in 2004. The choice might even become clear by the end of this year, when parliamentary elections are due to be held.

But Nadezhdin concludes that discerning any systemic trend remains difficult. Putin will try to cultivate both sides, relying on one or the other depending on the situation. In the end, the Duma deputy says, "it's a two-sided stick."

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