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Last Updated: Friday, 14 July 2006, 14:17 GMT 15:17 UK
Has Putin sapped Russian democracy?
By Damian Grammaticas
BBC Moscow correspondent

This weekend the leaders of the world's most powerful democracies are gathering in St Petersburg.

Procession in the Russian city of Yaroslavl
Yaroslavl, in Russia's heartland on the Volga River, has a long history

Hosting the meeting is Russia's President Vladimir Putin. But there has been criticism that Russia should even be part of this club of leading democratic nations, let alone allowed to chair it.

President Putin has been accused of doing much to roll back democracy in Russia, making his nation more authoritarian.

The city of Yaroslavl, in Russia's ancient heartland on the Volga River, is as good a place as any to ask: are the criticisms of Mr Putin's record valid?

'Defending our interests'

Recently parading down Yaroslavl's main street went a procession of marching bands, soldiers in olive green, men in claret and gold braid, a troupe of schoolgirls in electric blue. Yaroslavl was celebrating almost 1,000 years of history.

In medieval times this city on a broad green bend of the Volga dotted with old monasteries was, briefly, Russia's capital.

Now it is bristling with new confidence, certain that Russia is rising once more, reclaiming a role for itself in the world.

Underpinning it all is a sense that Mr Putin's government is delivering more stability, more prosperity than ever - a view shared by Sergei Rozov, who was watching the festivities with his family.

"They're taking more care of the economy. They're not always listening to the West anymore. They're defending our interests. It's good."

Kremlin's long reach

But is it all good? Take the case of Yaroslavl's Governor Anatoliy Lisitsyn. On the other side of the street he stood smiling, saluting the bands.

Yaroslavl's Governor Anatoliy Lisitsyn
The president is at the peak of his form
Anatoliy Lisitsyn
Governor of Yaroslavl

Two years ago he took the rare step of criticising President Putin for concentrating too much power in the Kremlin. Today Mr Lisitsyn is a big Putin supporter.

When I met him in his office there was a portrait of the president on his desk. Why did he change his tune?

Well, the authorities opened a criminal case against him and he was summoned to Moscow. He emerged from his meetings in the Kremlin "on message", the charges against him dropped.

"The president is at the peak of his form," he says. "He's the one who understands what Russia needs. Nobody could do a better job."

Even here, several hundred kilometres from Moscow, the Kremlin, under Mr Putin, has reasserted its influence.

'Rubber stamp'

On one side of the main square is Mr Lisitsyn's office, opposite it the local parliament. Russia has all the trappings of a democracy, but delve beneath the surface and it does not function like a democracy.

Our country is led by people who were trained as spies, secret agents. Their view is if you are not with us you are against us
Oleg Vinogradov
Opposition MP

The debate in Yaroslavl's parliament is impassioned. But like the national legislature, it is now packed with government supporters. It's a rubber stamp.

The local media, like the national one, is now carefully controlled. People who supported opposition candidates in the last local election have been forced out of their jobs.

Oleg Vinogradov, an opposition MP, is in no doubt about Russian democracy today.

"Nobody is sent to Siberia now," he says. "But all our democratic institutions have been destroyed, our media, our parliament, our courts.

"Our country is led by people who were trained as spies, secret agents. Their view is if you are not with us you are against us. The trouble is, ordinary people just don't care."

Strong government

The reason they don't care is that Mr Putin has delivered real improvements in people's standards of living, made possible by high oil prices supporting Russia's economy.

Sergei Rozov with his wife and baby daughter
The Rozovs want to see a more powerful and prosperous Russia

After the festivities Sergei Rozov, his wife and baby daughter went shopping in one of Yaroslavl's new supermarkets, its shelves packed with products, choice undreamed of a decade ago.

Then the Rozovs moved on to their favourite restaurant and a bottle of wine over lunch. In Yaroslavl these days you struggle to find a table.

Mr Rozov believes these are the benefits that flow from strong government and that Russia has no need for democracy today.

"The absence of democracy doesn't affect me. I'm earning more. My business is growing. One day we will have it. But we have to sort out the urgent things first. The state must become strong."

Yaroslavl's day of celebrations finished with lavish fireworks over the Volga.

The real priority for many, like the Rozovs, is seeing Russia powerful once more, respected.

A lack of democracy may draw criticism from the West. But that doesn't bother many Russians who approve of what their country is becoming.

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