Obama adviser nudges Russia on democracy

YAROSLAVL, Russia (Reuters) - Russia should uphold democratic rights and increase political competition if the Kremlin’s plans to modernize its economy are to become reality, President Barack Obama’s top adviser on Russia said on Thursday.

Some Russian opposition figures have criticized the Obama administration for playing down concerns over human rights and democracy to rebuild ties with the Kremlin and get help on U.S. priorities such as Iran’s nuclear program and Afghanistan.

But Michael McFaul, White House National Security Council senior director for Russian affairs, weighed into a debate about whether the tightly controlled political system shaped by former President Vladimir Putin could allow Russia to reform swiftly.

“Democracies in the developed world grow at a steady rate and do not have the economic disruptions that autocracies do,” McFaul told a Kremlin-backed conference about modernisation in the Russian city of Yaroslavl.

“Just as in the market, competition makes for better products and better companies, and just as in sports, competition makes for better sports teams, competition in a political system makes for better government,” McFaul said.

His comments, though couched in academic terms, were a clear signal to Kremlin officials, many of whom say the chaos after the fall of the Soviet Union has discredited democracy and that Russia needs a tightly controlled system to preserve stability.

“I wanted to tackle some of the mythologies about the instrumental role that autocracy plays in economic modernisation,” McFaul said at the conference, which President Dmitry Medvedev is expected to address.


Medvedev has called for reforms to modernize Russia and diversify the oil-dependent economy, which is growing again after contracting 7.9 percent last year, its worst annual economic performance since 1994.

Diplomats have praised his often tough critiques of Russia’s woes but say that more than halfway through his term Medvedev has failed to open up the political system crafted by his patron Putin or to combat rampant corruption and stifling bureaucracy.

Russia’s splintered opposition groups have been fighting a losing battle with the authorities over the freedom of assembly and riot police routinely break up demonstrations.

Putin, Russia’s paramount leader who serves as prime minister, gave police the green light for such crackdowns in an interview last month, saying people who protest without permission “will be hit on the head with batons.”

McFaul said the Russian opposition should be allowed freedom of assembly, echoing William Burns, U.S. under secretary of state for political affairs, who criticized Russia on Wednesday over the jailing of a human rights activist.

In answer to the U.S. criticism, Kremlin political chief Vladislav Surkov later told reporters that Russian had its own type of democracy.

“Russia has its own democracy... there are good cars and there are cars that break down but they are still all cars,” he said. “I don’t know if I am a democrat, but I am a free person.”

Editing by Sonya Hepinstall and Paul Taylor