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Barack Obama

Kremlin critic pins Russia democracy hopes on Obama

MOSCOW (Reuters) - U.S. President Barack Obama’s decision to meet Kremlin critics while visiting Russia shows Washington is no longer willing to ignore democracy and human rights to cut deals with Moscow, an opposition leader said.

Obama will meet representatives of non-governmental organizations during his July 6-8 trip to Russia. He will also see opposition figures including Garry Kasparov, a former chess champion who has become one of the Kremlin’s harshest critics.

“I think the fact of the meeting is more important than anything else,” Kasparov told Reuters in an interview on Friday.

“It sends a signal the (U.S.) administration is probably ready to end this application of double standards which has been used for (former President now Prime Minister Vladimir) Putin’s Russia by foreign leaders for many years,” Kasparov, 46, said.

Kremlin critics say Western leaders have at times toned down criticism of Russia’s human rights violations, its poor record on democracy and its government-dominated media landscape to pursue lucrative business deals and win Moscow’s cooperation.

“What we always wanted is for America and other Western countries not to support Putin’s regime by pretending that Putin’s regime was democratic,” Kasparov said.

“The very fact that (Obama) included such a meeting on his agenda is something that Bush and (former U.S. Secretary of State) Condoleezza Rice never did and I guess never wanted to.”

Though the Communist party and a far-right nationalist grouping are represented in parliament along with the two main pro-Kremlin parties, Russia’s democratic, pro-Western opposition has been pushed out by changes in electoral legislation.

Kasparov heads the Other Russia movement, which relies mainly on street protests -- often broken up by police -- and online campaigning to get its message across. State-controlled media ignore him.

Kasparov will meet Obama along with Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov and two other leaders of small pro-Western opposition parties -- Boris Nemtsov of Solidarity and Sergei Mitrokhin from Yabloko. Obama has no meeting scheduled with the parliamentary leader of the main pro-Kremlin party, United Russia.

“What is important to us during this visit is that unlike his predecessor, Obama will not pretend that Putin and his regime is the only party to talk to in Russia,” Kasparov said.

Putin remains the dominant force in the Russian power structure after stepping down as Kremlin chief in 2008, and his breakfast meeting with Obama on Tuesday is likely to set the tone for relations between the two countries.

CRISIS TO SHATTER GOVERNMENT

Kasparov predicted that the worsening economic crisis in Russia would lead to a change in power and that the opposition would gather more support.

Russians were willing to live without democracy when the country was awash with money from oil and gas revenues, Kasparov said. But they were becoming increasingly angry now that the country is mired in a deep recession.

“Probably within the next 12 months, the political landscape will look very different... I think that eventually the regime will crunch under the pressure of civil protest,” he said, declining to describe specific political changes.

Companies have been slashing jobs and salaries as lower oil prices, falling demand for commodities and the global credit crunch have tipped Russia into its worst recession since the chaotic years following the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union.

Editing by Michael Stott and Elizabeth Fullerton

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