July 6, 2009 / 8:42 PM / 10 years ago

Russian civil society leaders to appeal to Obama

MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russian civil society leaders will appeal to President Barack Obama on Tuesday to focus a spotlight on the country’s democratic deficit and lack of transparency.

Obama plans to dedicate several hours to dozens of organizations, entrepreneurs and NGOs who operate in Russia as part of his two-day visit — a session his Russian counterpart Dmitry Medvedev turned down, sources said.

After signing a series of bilateral agreements on Monday, including on nuclear arms reduction and Afghanistan, Obama said he would turn his attention to more human issues.

“I look forward to broadening this effort, to include business, civil society, dialogue among Americans and Russians,” he said.

U.S. leaders’ comments on Russian democracy and civil society have received a cold reception in the past.

But Medvedev, since becoming president just over a year ago, has made repeated pledges to improve civil society and encourage openness and pluralism in both the business and social spheres.

One of his proposals, the easing of restrictions placed on NGOs operating in Russia, was passed last week ahead of Obama’s visit.

Though Medvedev has cultivated an image as a liberal, analysts say he has made very few substantive changes.

“Anti-Westernism” and “authoritarianism” remain dangerous for both democracy and business in Russia, said Lyudmila Alexeyeva, the head of the influential Moscow Helsinki Group, Russia’s oldest non-governmental organization.

William Beebe-Center, president of the non-profit Eurasia Foundation organizing Obama’s civic meeting, said civil society was an essential part of bilateral relations.

“The engagement between Russia and America will be incomplete if the social dimension is not renewed and deepened.”

Several of those who will attend Tuesday’s meeting, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Medvedev had turned down an invitation to join Obama for the session.

“The president (Medvedev) does not need to be in the presence of other presidents in order to discuss civil society in his country,” Itar-Tass news agency quoted a Kremlin source as saying on Monday. The Kremlin declined to comment.

Reporting by Amie Ferris-Rotman, editing by Tim Pearce

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