'Potemkin Democracy' Seen in Putin's Russia

By Sergei Blagov | July 7, 2008 | 8:17 PM EDT

Moscow (CNSNews.com) - Overshadowed by the Mideast crisis, the G8 summit in St. Petersburg is nonetheless providing President Vladimir Putin's government with the opportunity to assert Russia's role in global politics.

As the formerly Communist nation hosted the leaders of the world's major industrial powers for the first time, Putin tried -- despite the distractions -- to focus attention on energy security, a reminder that Russia has emerged as the world's top natural gas producer and exporter and the second largest oil exporter after Saudi Arabia.

The Kremlin has been eager to present Russia as an indispensable, reliable energy supplier, an issue of particular importance to European countries, which receive roughly a quarter of their natural gas from Russia.

Other nations have been wary of Russia's assertive energy politics, seen especially in areas of Eastern Europe which are moving away from Moscow's influence and closer to the West. Some critics have likened Putin's policies to Russia's tsarist expansionism.

It's not the only area of difference between Russia and its G8 partners.

Many here expected that a deal with the United States on Russia's accession to the World Trade Organization (WTO) could be clinched when President Bush met with Putin before and during the summit.

But breakthroughs proved slow to materialize, and Russia, which has been negotiating to join the trade body since 1993, looks set to remain the largest economy still outside the 149-member WTO, with the U.S. remaining the last hurdle to its bid.

Speaking at a joint press conference with Putin, Bush said that his country supported Russian entry into the WTO but that more work needed to be done. Difficulties with U.S. access to Russian beef markets have been holding back an agreement.

Another major Western concern deals with autocratic tendencies in the Kremlin.

In a bid to ease some of the pressure, the government allowed an anti-G8 event called the Social Forum to take place at a sports stadium on the edge of the city.

But protests outside the stadium were not permitted, and St. Petersburg looked set to break the tradition of large, sometimes violent protests accompanying annual G8 summits elsewhere.

Russian protesters turned up in limited numbers. Only a few foreign protesters managed to travel to St. Petersburg due to difficulties of obtaining visas, the high cost of hotels, and fear of a Russian police clampdown. Russia's state-run agency Rostourism acknowledged it warned overseas operators to limit numbers of tourists visiting the city during the summit.

St. Petersburg, Putin's native city, was founded by Tsar Peter the Great and became Russia's imperial capital. Some of the G8 meetings have been held at Peterhof, also known as the Grand Imperial Palace.

In his office, Putin has displayed a portrait of Peter the Great, credited for turning a backwards Russia into a modern state in the early 18th century.

Russia's imperial legacy also includes what were known as "Potemkin villages" - hollow facades constructed at the direction of Russian minister Grigori Potemkin to show Empress Catherine II during her visit to Crimea in 1787.

The term "Potemkin village" was used to describe attempts by Soviet authorities to fool foreign visitors by showing them model facilities that were far from typical, in a bid to boost the country's image.

In Russia's current political circumstances, the term "Potemkin democracy" has gained currency among critics of Putin's policies.

Concerns abroad sparked criticism of Russia's place at the G8 table and especially as host, but the Kremlin appears to have won over domestic critics to some degree.

More Russians than ever before believe their country belongs in the group of leading industrialized and democratic nations, according to a poll by the Public Opinion Foundation - 36 percent, up from 25 percent last year.

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