Opposition and civil society leaders in Russia on Wednesday called on leaders of the Group of Eight to demand that President Vladimir Putin end a “campaign of political repression” against opponents.

In an open letter to heads of state and government meeting in St Petersburg this weekend, participants in a pro-democracy conference in Moscow said dozens of delegates had been detained on their way to the meeting.

“The authorities now have started repression,” Mikhail Kasyanov, Russia’s former prime minister turned opposition presidential candidate, told the conference – the broadest meeting of Kremlin opponents during Mr Putin’s presidency. “Many of our colleagues didn’t make it here. They were arrested, removed from trains, or beaten.”

The comments came as Mr Putin charged in four television interviews ahead of the G8 summit starting on Saturday that some international partners were using the issue of democracy to try to influence Russian internal affairs. He called the west’s focus on democratisation a form or “neocolonialism” or “remnant of cold war thinking”.

In a swipe at Dick Cheney, the US vice-president who recently criticised Russia’s record on democracy, Mr Putin told America’s NBC the remarks had been an “unsuccessful hunting shot” – referring to the shotgun blast by Mr Cheney that accidentally wounded a companion.

The verbal clashes set the scene for a potentially tricky three-day summit, at least behind the scenes, in Russia’s second city. Visiting heads of state and government must balance desire for progress on multilateral issues with the risk of being seen to endorse what opponents say are the Kremlin’s increasingly hardline policies.

In a piece of delicate diplomatic footwork, US President George W. Bush will on Friday meet civil society leaders from across Russia in St Petersburg – before meeting Mr Putin, where the two may reach a long-awaited agreement on Russian entry to the World Trade Organisation.

Pro-democracy campaigners will also rally in St Petersburg following the two-day conference in Moscow which brought under one roof a diverse collection of speakers. They included Andrei Illarionov, Mr Putin’s former chief economic adviser, Lyudmila Alexeeva, a Soviet-era dissident and human rights activist, and Eduard Limonov, head of the radical National Bolshevik party.

Speakers highlighted what they called the lack of media freedom and an independent judiciary in Russia, and complained of manipulation of the political process by a small elite within or linked to the Kremlin which now controlled much of the country’s natural resource wealth.

Garry Kasparov, the former world chess champion who organised the event, said nearly 50 activists had been arrested or detained on their way to Moscow or the St Petersburg rally. Some faced charges of terrorism or drug possession, he added. The claims could not be independently verified.

“Systematic repression against the Russian opposition has become . . . the prelude to the G8 summit,” conference participants said in their letter to G8 leaders. “It is apparent to us that this campaign is centralised, and by all means sanctioned, by the political leadership of our country.”

Several G8 officials or diplomats defied an earlier warning from Igor Shuvalov, a senior aide to Mr Putin and Russia’s G8 “sherpa”, that attending the Moscow conference would be seen as an “unfriendly gesture”.

Tony Brenton, British ambassador to Moscow, addressed the meeting yesterday where he was interrupted by a pro-Kremlin heckler. Daniel Fried, US assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs, who was also present, noted that if Russian officials attended a US opposition meeting “we wouldn’t regard it as anything other than doing their job”.

Political analysts say Russia’s G8 presidency is less important for Mr Putin’s domestic audience. But they say the Russian president is anxious to win international recognition of Russia’s role as a world player.

“The Russian leadership is seeking legitimisation from the west for its political course,” Lilia Shevtsova of the Moscow Carnegie Center think-tank told yesterday’s conference. “But we have to realise that western influence [on Russia] is now very minimal, it’s very limited.”

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