YAROSLAVL, Russia (Reuters) - Organising a conference on democracy was always going to be a challenge for the Kremlin.
Keen to burnish his credentials as a political reformer after a year in office which saw little actual reform, President Dmitry Medvedev ordered officials to stage an international conference on “The Modern State and Global Security”.
The idea was to show how Russia, like Davos, could be a forum for open debate among international experts on delicate subjects such as democracy, terrorism and the world order.
But the result - an eight-hour conference held on Monday in the ancient university town of Yaroslavl on Medvedev’s 44th birthday -- instead highlighted Russia’s very particular political system.
Communists present praised Josef Stalin for his sensitivity to social issues, Russian analysts blasted U.S.-style democracy, a Chinese speaker railed against the “evil” of separatism and an American suggested China’s late leader Deng Xiaoping as a model for introducing democracy.
“With Dmitry Medevedev’s arrival in power as Russia’s president, discussion of democracy in our country moved onto a higher level,” Igor Yurgens, who chairs a think-tank founded by Medvedev, told the conference.
Medvedev, who took power last year, has repeatedly stressed the need for Russia to open up and modernise its political system. But opponents say he has made very few real changes to the tightly controlled set-up he inherited from his mentor Vladimir Putin.
The most vocal Kremlin critics -- such as former world chess champion Garry Kasparov or former premier Mikhail Kasyanov -- were not invited to the state-of-the-art ice hockey stadium in Yaroslavl for the conference at all.
Kremlin officials explained they had asked all the “genuine opposition figures represented in the state Duma” to attend -- such as the Communists or the nationalist LDPR -- but not “hooligans” or “extremists”.
Independent NGOs critical of the Kremlin were not represented and the conference venue on the city’s outskirts was sealed off from citizens by tight security, giving the whole affair a rather remote feel.
The few opposition figures present among the 500-odd guests said Russian democratic reform was still at the discussion stage. “I suppose it’s better to have a conference on democracy than not to have one,” said Georgy Bovt, one of the leaders of the small pro-business party Right Cause.
Sergei Mitrokhin, leader of the pro-Western liberal Yabloko opposition party, said life for his struggling party had got worse under Medvedev. “Before we used to get free airtime for election broadcasts but now we have to pay for it,” he said.
Asked how much support he expected for his party at upcoming Moscow city elections he quoted a maxim attributed to Stalin: “It’s not how many votes you get, it’s how they are counted.”
Inside the expensively fitted out stadium turned conference centre, speakers talked of democracy in the abstract. Foreign guests avoided direct references to Russia.
Medvedev himself did the same in his keynote speech. He spoke of how a nation’s right to sovereignty should not be used as a pretext to create isolated, non-transparent, closed political regimes -- but did not go into details.
The prime ministers of France and Spain, Francois Fillon and Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero praised Medvedev fulsomely for holding the conference and stressed in their speeches a desire to cooperate more closely with Russia -- and do more business.
Reflecting the state of diplomatic ties, the Kremlin has shown a preference of late for deals with French and Italian energy companies, rather than British or U.S. majors.
The man whom opponents blame most for the erosion of democracy in Russia over the past decade, Prime Minister Putin, was absent from the Yaroslavl conference.
So were his close allies, the powerful deputy prime ministers Igor Sechin, Alexei Kudrin and Igor Shuvalov.
The Kremlin’s all-powerful political chief, Vladislav Surkov, attended but did not speak.
So it was left to Kremlin-connected spin doctor Gleb Pavlovsky to explain that “since the time of the Russian revolutionaries, a democratic state has been viewed in Russia as a weakened state - or worse, as a punished state, chastised by the people”.