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Official Asserts Russia’s Rights

Times Staff Writer

President Vladimir V. Putin’s top political advisor Wednesday accused the U.S. of seeking international energy domination under the guise of promoting democracy and insisted that Russia is committed to building its own style of political pluralism without outside interference.

“When our partners interpret energy security as full control over our energy resources, I think we have a right to understand it differently,” said Vladislav Y. Surkov, deputy head of the presidential administration and the architect of some of Putin’s most controversial steps to reassert the power of the state in Russia.

“People talk to us about democracy, but they’re really thinking about our energy resources,” Surkov said.

He noted that during Dick Cheney’s recent visit to Kazakhstan, an oil-rich state whose human rights record is often criticized, the American vice president “harshly criticized Russia’s democracy and then praised Kazakhstan’s.”

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“Kazakhstan is our brother and neighbor, but I’ll never believe they’ve advanced further in the cause of democracy than Russia has,” he said. “We know our flaws. But we don’t get involved in things that are not our business, and we’d like to be treated in the same way.”

The politely combative tone came shortly before the arrival of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and other foreign ministers of the Group of 8 industrialized nations for meetings chaired this year by Russia. Energy security is a top theme for the talks, as is Russia’s reemergence as a global oil and gas superpower able to use its energy supplies as a lever in dealing with the new Western-backed democracies emerging along its borders.

Wednesday’s meeting with reporters was a rare look at the secretive, 41-year-old advisor widely known as the “gray cardinal” of the Kremlin. Surkov has quietly played a significant role in steering Russia toward returning to state control of strategic sectors of the economy, including oil and gas, communications, pipelines, electricity and banking; managing the development of civil society; and mobilizing pro-Kremlin youth groups to avert a popular revolution of the kind seen in nearby Georgia and Ukraine.

With occasional references to Dostoyevsky and Noam Chomsky, Surkov outlined the Russian administration’s vision of a “sovereign democracy” in which Russia moves toward the kind of political system idealized in the West but adapted to Russian standards and independent of outsiders seeking to manage Russia’s course for their own gain.

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“It means that as we build an open society, we don’t forget the fact that we are a free nation, and we want to be a free nation among other free nations, and work with them and cooperate with them on the basis of fair rules, and not be controlled from outside,” he said.

Surkov previously said that Russia and its interlocutors in Europe and the U.S. should recognize one another as competitors in a world where economics determines politics.

Surkov reminded reporters Wednesday that U.S. institutions that are critical now of perceived rollbacks in Russian democracy were just as critical in the 1990s when Putin’s predecessor, President Boris N. Yeltsin, allowed a small band of oligarchs to seize control of Russia’s most lucrative industries and influence much government decision-making.

He quoted from respected U.S. and British newspaper commentaries in 1997 and 1998 that warned that in Russia “a class of nouveau riche criminals and thieves run the country,” and “the Mafia is omnipresent in the banking system, there is cronyism in all steps of the political ladder in Russia.... Russia is not a democracy.”

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“This is how you and your colleagues viewed our country in the ‘90s,” he said. “This is what we’re backpedaling from, and this is what we’ll continue to backpedal from.”

Surkov was an aide for much of the 1990s to former Yukos oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who became Russia’s highest profile prisoner last year after the Kremlin engineered a multibillion-dollar tax fraud case against him that led to the re-nationalization of Yukos’ biggest production asset.

Dmitry Babich, a journalist for Russia Profile who interviewed Surkov in 1992, said even then he had begun to form his view of foreign policy as a contest between nations.

“He told me that under [former President Mikhail] Gorbachev, we got the idea that the world is an interest club, everyone is trying to help everyone else in every possible way,” Babich said.

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“ ‘This is a wrong image of the world,’ he said. ‘The world should be viewed at best as a stadium, and at worst as a battlefield. We can make it as good as possible, but we shouldn’t expect anyone to solve our problems for us.’ ”

Striking a defiant tone Wednesday, Surkov rejected any idea that Russia lost the Cold War and must have democracy imposed from outside.

“We don’t believe we were defeated in the Cold War. We believe we defeated our totalitarian regime, and were victors,” he said. “It wasn’t your special services that defeated us.... We believe that Moscow did much more than Washington or London for the democratization of Eastern Europe or Central Asia.

“And if people in the West assessed the situation thus, I think they’d have more respect for us.”

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