Moscow (CNSNews.com) - Striking a defiant note ahead of the Group of Eight summit in St. Petersburg this weekend, Russian leaders warned against what they consider to be Western interference in the country's internal affairs.
Amid calls for President Bush to put democratic freedoms in Russia on the summit agenda, Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov accused critics of the Kremlin of being "unhappy about an independent, strong and confident Russia."
In an article published in Izvestia daily on Thursday, Ivanov said the West should not meddle in Russia's internal affairs, adding that Russia would use its "military might" as a deterrent and to defend its sovereignty.
He said Russia faced challenges both from "soft" opponents who were critical of its policies, and from terrorists.
The country needed the ability "to provide adequate response both to attempts to exert foreign policy pressure and to direct aggression, including international terrorism."
Ivanov serves as deputy to President Vladimir Putin and is seen as a possible contender for the presidency when the incumbent is scheduled to stand down in 2008.
Putin said on Thursday his government wanted to develop civil society but would not tolerate foreign funding for Russian political organizations.
"We do not welcome and will not assist foreign governments in sending money to the Russia Federation in a non-transparent way," he told a German television network.
Visiting Germany en route to St. Petersburg, Bush reiterated U.S. concerns about democracy in Russia.
"I think our job is to continue to remind Russia if she wants to continue to have good relations she needs to share common values," he told a news conference after meeting with Chancellor Angela Merkel.
But he also added: "My own view of dealing with President Putin is that nobody really likes to be lectured a lot, and therefore if you want to be an effective person, what you don't do is scold the person publicly all the time."
French President Jacques Chirac, who is also due to attend the G8 summit, also called this week on Putin to respect democratic values, saying that by hosting the gathering, Russia was "taking on certain responsibilities"
Domestic critics highlighted their concerns about the situation by holding a conference in Moscow this week entitled "The Other Russia."
Participants, including hundreds of opposition figures and activists, urged G8 leaders to protest what they described as "systematic repression against the Russian opposition."
"We are gathering together because we are united in our disagreement with the current political course of the Kremlin," they said in a statement, appealing to the world leaders to demand the release of all political detainees and an end to all unlawful actions against the opposition. Participants agreed to meet again in September.
The conference was an attempted to unite the fragmented opposition, but the country's leading democratic parties, Yabloko and SPS, declined to participate, arguing they did not want to sit in the same room as hard-line communists.
The Kremlin earlier warned that it would regard any Western officials' attendance at the Other Russia conference as an unfriendly gesture.
Nonetheless, senior U.S. State Department officials Daniel Fried, assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs, and Barry Lowenkron, assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor, did attend, as did British ambassador Anthony Brenton.
The U.S.-based advocacy group Human Rights Watch called on Putin's G8 partners to remind him "of his obligations to promote democratic freedoms, not interfere with them."
"Russia's attempts to stifle an independent gathering speak louder than the lip service it pays to democracy," said the group's Europe and Central Asia director, Holly Cartner.
The more than 3,000 foreign guests due in St. Petersburg this weekend will be met with banners describing Russia as "The Country of Possibilities."
Organizers say the government has spent nearly 11 billion rubles (some $400 million) on preparations for the summit.
G8 members are the U.S., Japan, Canada, Britain, France, Germany, Italy and Russia.
The leaders will be joined at some sessions by the leaders of invited non-members China, India, Brazil, Mexico and South Africa, and top officials from the U.N., World Bank and other multilateral organizations.
Security preparations reminded many here of the run up to Moscow Olympics in 1980. Police have expelled from the city center large numbers of street children, homeless and foreigners lacking proper registration.
Authorities also decided to close the Neva River to navigation during the summit and to close the city's airport to commercial flights for four days.
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