The Russian ambassador to the United States slammed U.S. President Joe Biden’s decision to hold a second “Summit for Democracy” this week, rejecting the affair as an attempt by Washington to impose its interests worldwide even as the U.S. faces serious issues of its own at home.
The two-day virtual summit, which is set to begin Wednesday, is the second of its kind following the debut event in December 2021 involving more than 100 leaders. While the Biden administration hailed the gathering as a crucial step toward shoring up relations between nations committed to democratic governance, critics pointed to an uncertain criterion for who received invitations, a lack of substantial agreements reached and the United States’ difficult experience with peaceful transition of power earlier that year.
Among the critics is Russian Ambassador Anatoly Antonov, who told Newsweek that the first forum “was characterized as the epitome of hypocrisy even by a number of observers in the West.”
“Questions arose not only about the list of invited countries, many of which are considered ‘undemocratic’ here,” Antonov said, “but also, in principle, about the ability and largely the moral right of Washington—dealing with many political and socio-economic controversies at home—to impose its canons and way of life on others.”
The Russian envoy said that Moscow established three flaws in the first summit based on conversations with those who participated.
“It turned out that many of them, firstly, had no idea of what the essence of Washington’s undertaking was,” Antonov said. “Secondly, they were driven the importance of being in a group of ‘leading democracies’ of the world. Thirdly, as some diplomats put it, the path of least resistance was taken.
“Nothing was requested, and the establishment of another forum for discussions on democratic transformations entailed no consequences for their countries.”
Now, he said, “the situation with the second ‘Summit’ is actually the same.”
“Many are wondering: What do they want in Washington from this gathering? What is the added value to the world standards in democracy?” Antonov asked. “How to accommodate national differences in culture, history, religion?
“Finally, some ‘dissidents’ among the participants of the ‘Summit’ even take the liberty to doubt the legitimacy of the general line of imposing American values and standards on the ‘democratic community.’”
Controversy has already begun to surround the new summit. NATO allies such as the heads of Hungary and Turkey were once again spurned, while Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was reportedly still scheduled to speak at the event despite domestic unrest sparked by a proposed law that would give parliament more influence over the judiciary system.
Growing tensions in Israel led the White House National Security Council to issue a statement of concern on Sunday and NSC Strategic Communications Coordinator John Kirby reaffirmed these worries the following day.
“We remain deeply concerned by recent developments, which further underscored in our view that urgent need for compromise,” Kirby told reporters during a press call Monday.
And while he confirmed that Israel was one of 121 countries invited to the upcoming Summit for Democracy, he said the details of the agenda would be communicated in the following days. And he defended the tenets of the summit at what he saw as a fraught time for democracies around the world.
“I think if you just look at the events of the last year,” Kirby said, “we can see that democracies all around the world, because they’re open societies, because they are based on consent of the government, because they believe in free expression and the rule of law, they remain vulnerable to attacks by autocratic, authoritarian state actors as well as non-state actors.
“And so, the whole idea of a summit for democracy is to stand up for this very idea of democracy, to acknowledge that maintaining democratic institutions requires a whole heck of a lot of work and effort, honesty, transparency and accountability.”
But Antonov argued that the U.S. flaws ran even deeper than that.
“Doesn’t America have problems with racism, gun violence, corruption and social inequality? Why are approximately 40 million people living below the poverty line in the richest country in the world?” Antonov asked. “Yet, the 50 wealthiest Americans are richer than half the U.S. population.
“There is also a clear problem with the freedom of speech, evidenced eloquently by the ‘cancel culture’ cutting out people from the public sphere for dissenting views. Many admit that the U.S. electoral law also has certain flaws, lacking an institute of direct presidential elections.”
As such, Antonov argued that democracy was being replaced by “democratism,” a system in which “ruling elites enjoy practically unlimited power, democratic norms are just declared and democratic institutions are nothing but window dressing.”
He then cited a survey published by Pew Research Center in October 2021, less than two months before the first Summit for Democracy, finding that some 85 percent of U.S. respondents sought significant political reform in the country. That, he argued, “should hardly be a role model.”
Antonov also criticized attempts by the U.S. to actively influence or completely rework the systems of other nations.
“There are no perfect countries,” Antonov said. “Human rights protection is not the exclusive prerogative of the West. Democracy is not built on templates, but is a product of the internal development of a particular society. We have seen the disastrous consequences of the attempts to forcibly export American democracy to Iraq, Libya and Afghanistan.”
Antonov also saw the tactic attempted against Russia following the fall of the Soviet Union in the 1990s, when “Western colleagues absolutized the principle of human rights in every possible way in conversation with us to achieve a concrete political goal.”
“Russia was compelled to accept the standards of state-building and governance beneficial to the West, but implying serious losses for our country,” he said. “We have drawn conclusions.”
Relations between Moscow and Washington have only further deteriorated since the last summit, especially after Russia launched a war against neighboring Ukraine on February 24, 2022. The U.S. has increasingly backed Ukraine in the conflict, and Antonov argued that Washington and other Western powers were using issues of human rights as a weapon to cast Moscow as the aggressor.
Now, he said, the “organizers of the second ‘Summit’ are vigorously inciting others to include odious anti-Russian language in the draft of the joint final declaration.”
“Draft texts for the upcoming meetings give the feeling that this year Washington has set a goal of shaping a human rights coalition against Russia and dragging partners into anti-Russian traps under the cover of a noble idea of developing democracy,” Antonov said.
“It is obvious that subsequently the drafted statement will be manifested as a common international position condemning my country for upholding national sovereignty and defending democratic freedoms of the Russian people in the east of Europe.”
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky is scheduled to take part in a pre-summit event Thursday, hosted by U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, during which the Ukrainian leader will discuss “his vision for a just and lasting peace,” according to the State Department.
The virtual gathering was set to “provide an opportunity to hear various perspectives on the elements needed to end Russia’s war and establish a durable peace in Ukraine in line with principles contained in the UN Charter.”
During the last summit, Zelensky defended Ukraine’s progress in combating corruption and protecting human rights as Russian troops and tanks amassed around his country’s borders, saying, “together, we must make this world freer, safer and more democratic.”
Also likely to prove contentious this time is the invitation extended to Taiwan. Though the U.S. has no official relations with the self-ruling island, Washington has expanded its political and military support to Taipei in the face of Chinese territorial claims and threats of potential reunification by force.
Tensions over Taiwan have played out between the U.S. and China in parallel to a growing effort by the Biden administration to restrict its top global competitor’s access to certain technologies.
Antonov, for his part, expressed suspicion toward the inclusion of “such unrelated issues as technological development” during the Summit for Democracy.
“A thesis is being pushed through that it is necessary to restrict access to advanced technologies for ‘authoritarian’ regimes, cutting off undesirable countries from progress,” Antonov said. “But there is Washington’s cold calculation behind this rhetoric—the pursuit of establishing global control over the innovation market and distributing single-handedly all benefits to suit its own interests.”
The Summit for Democracy was set to being a week after Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping wrapped up a summit of their own in Moscow. It was the first in-person meeting between the two men since two weeks prior to the conflict in Ukraine, when Putin and Xi marked the beginning of the Winter Olympic Games in Beijing.
Antonov noted how the joint statement that emerged from the latest meeting “expressed their commitment to a multipolar world order, rejected the idea of a ‘superior democracy’ and condemned the creation of a flawed narrative about the division of peoples of the world into the chosen and the outcast.” Both sides, he pointed out, “called for respect for the diversity of cultures and civilizations.”
“It is extremely dangerous to cultivate in people the idea of their exclusivity, regardless of the motives,” Antonov warned.
In this context, the Russian envoy argued that “the protection of democracy and human rights should not be used as an instrument of putting pressure on others, especially undesirable countries.” Such “politicization of these issues,” he asserted, “results only in the increased tension in international relations.
“Any state has its achievements and shortcomings,” Antonov said. “Therefore, efforts to eliminate the imperfections can only be universal, but not based on coalitions with a slogan “who is not with us is against us.”
As for his own nation, Antonov said that “Russia has been consistently following the democratic path taking into account its historical experience and traditions.” That includes being “against the imposition of gender-oriented approaches and LGBT agenda as well as drug-liberalism, the cult of consumerism and overindulgence—to the detriment of family values.”
“Still,” he added, “we do not impose our own views on others.”
And just as Antonov previously criticized the first Summit for Democracy in a joint op-ed alongside then-Chinese counterpart Qin Gang, now the foreign minister of China, the Russian ambassador once again raised the alarm on what he saw as a step away from upholding the U.N. Charter rather than toward it.
“I am convinced that the attempts to use the human rights doctrine to play geopolitical games destroying sovereignty of States and to justify Western political, financial, economic and ideological dominance should cease,” Antonov said. “In today’s complex and turbulent world, it is important to protect and preserve such fundamental principles of international accord as sovereign equality and non-interference in the affairs of other states.
“This would be a true manifestation of democracy and would prevent a slide into chaos. Russia is ready for such work.”