Say what you like about Vladimir Putin but he's full of surprises. At the end of a week in which newspaper pundits in the West have been wringing their hands about the enfeebled state of Russian democracy, and the Washington watchdog Freedom House has again derided Russia as "not free"', Putin goes on the offensive with plans for a think-tank of his own to criticise US and European democracy.
I guess we should've seen it coming. Western criticism of Putin's backsliding on human rights and political freedom has always rankled with the siloviki, or "uniformed ones", who comprise his inner circle. (Two years ago, I helped write a pamphlet questioning Russia's commitment to the founding principles of the G8. Putin denounced it as the work of "unreconstructed Sovietologists". A case of pot calling the kettle black, you might think.) The current row with the British Council has seen Russian Foreign Minister lash out at the UK government's "nostalgia for colonial times". Now a pro-Kremlin lawyer, Anatoly Kucherena, is to set up monitoring offices in New York and Paris "to recommend improvements" to the US and French political systems.
Kucherena is quoted in today's Wall Street Journal saying the new Institute for Democracy and Cooperation will scrutinise US election law, the state of human rights, race relations and the American response to terrorism.
"The US election system is intriguing," Kucherena goes on. "In a country with such a democratic history, it's interesting that the outcome is decided by the electoral college and not by the people."
All this on a day when tens of thousands of people in the North Caucasus republic of Ingushetia signed a petition calling last month's Russian parliamentary elections a fraud.
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