Putin plays to public with anti-US tirade

Rarely, even in Soviet days, can a Moscow leader in the run-up to a summit with his US counterpart have been quite so rude about his hosts.

The meeting between Vladimir Putin and George W. Bush, which began on Sunday in Kennebunkport, Maine, promises to be a far cry from the chummy “Bill ’n’ Boris show”, as the relationship between their respective predecessors was dubbed.

Despite highlighting his “very warm and friendly relations” with Mr Bush before his departure for Maine on Sunday, the Russian president has spent the past few months pouring vitriol on the US.

First, railing against US “unilateralism” in Munich in February, Mr Putin warned that the US had “overstepped its boundaries in every way”. Then, in a VE Day address in May, he warned that an “ideology of confrontation and extremism” posed new global threats, which, “just as under the Third Reich, show the same contempt for human life and ... aspiration to establish an exclusive dictate over the world”.

The Kremlin later denied Mr Putin was comparing the US to the Third Reich. But asked by foreign reporters about his democratic record before last month’s G8 summit, Mr Putin urged them to “look at what’s happening in North America”.

“It’s simply awful,” he added. “Torture, homeless people, Guantánamo, people detained without trial and investigation.”

Finally, in a speech to history teachers last week that shocked many liberal intellectuals, Mr Putin appeared to suggest 20th-century US actions were worse than Stalinism. Russia’s “bleak pages” were fewer and “less terrible than in some countries”.

“We have never used nuclear weapons against civilians, and we have never dumped chemicals on thousands of kilometres of land or dropped more bombs on a tiny country than were dropped during the entire second world war, as ... in Vietnam,” he said.

He suggested Russia’s past was being distorted by history book writers who received western grants.

Analysts say Mr Putin’s rhetoric partly reflects Russian frustration at being pushed around during its 1990s economic weakness and its demand to be listened to again. Mr Putin is also reacting to perceived US double standards in lecturing Moscow on human rights. Furthermore, commentators on both sides of the Atlantic suggest demonising the US is a tactic ahead of parliamentary elections in December and presidential elections next March.

“The Putin administration ... is trying to build up a sense of foreign threats to improve the popularity and ensure the continuation of his regime after the 2008 elections,” Kimberly Marten, of Columbia University’s Harriman Institute, said.

How much of the official bluster has rubbed off on ordinary Russians is not clear. Romir Monitoring, a polling group, found this month that 61 per cent of Russians considered the US an “unfriendly” nation – but 52 per cent did six years ago in Putin’s early days.

Analysts suggest many Putin pronouncements, particularly his speech to history teachers, are aimed at a domestic audience, but not solely for electoral reasons. They say the president’s antidote to the corrosive nihilism of the post-Soviet 1990s has been to engineer a kind of fusion of the Russian and Soviet past, suggesting it is right for Russians to take pride in achievements such as the first Sputnik while playing down communism’s dark sides. “He created something we think is ugly, but it is accepted in Russia,” says Alexander Rahr, a Putin biographer from the German Council on Foreign Relations.

But some Russians fear Mr Putin is veering dangerously into suggestions that even the dark sides were not so bad. Marietta Chudakova, a Russian literature professor and former member of Boris Yeltsin’s presidential council, says Mr Putin’s “history books” speech – like many actions, starting with restoring the old Soviet anthem when he came to office – aimed to “reinforce in the population’s consciousness that there was no era of totalitarianism in 20th-century Russia”.

“What was new in the speech was to suggest that the history of other countries, for example the US, was ‘even worse’. I consider this tendency dangerous for the social climate in my country,” she says.

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