US President George W. Bush has made Russia the focus of his campaign for global democracy because it is bucking perceived international trends, analysts argued yesterday.
But they were not sure if the increased heat on Russian President Vladimir Putin would progress much beyond words. That was despite what appeared to be a growing rift between the two leaders.
Mr Bush said after a speech in the Slovak capital, Bratislava, on Thursday that when he said "strong nations are built by developing strong democracies", he was speaking directly to Mr Putin.
"I think Vladimir heard me loud and clear," he told a press conference.
But Mr Putin quickly - and bluntly - rejected repeated American accusations that he was taking Russia down the path of authoritarianism. "Russia has made its choice in favour of democracy," he said.
"There can be no return to what we used to have before," he insisted, referring to the collapse of the Soviet Union and the emergence of democracy in 1991 from the ashes of communism.
But such assertions are rejected by human and civil rights groups, Mr Bush and increasingly loud voices in the US Congress. They accuse the Russian leader of trampling on freedoms to maintain his hold on power. A Republican and a Democratic senator have called for Russia's dropping from the Group of Eight economic powers if it backslides on democratic reforms.
Washington-based experts on democracy said that Russia was "rocking the boat" in the face of a series of elections in Eastern Europe and the Middle East that had led to the removal of authoritarian governments.
The president of the Foundation for the Defence of Democracies, Clifford May, said Mr Putin was not in step with what Mr Bush liked to term as democracy being "on the march".
"Clearly, that's true in Eastern Europe and most recently - and dramatically - in Ukraine," Mr May noted.
"We've also now had historic elections in Afghanistan and Iraq. The people of Lebanon want an end to Syrian occupation and the restoration of real freedom and democracy. Recent elections in the Palestinian Authority and Saudi Arabia were at least encouraging."
But he believed that in recent years, Mr Putin had moved away from democracy - a view that was shared by the director of the Russian and Eurasian programme at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Anders Asland.
But Dr Asland believed that increased American pressure and Russia's already strong civil society would ensure Mr Putin would not stray too far from the path of democracy.
He observed Russia already had 500,000 non-government groups which are not shy about criticising the president and his government.
The US had for many years been supporting these organisations and complementing the approach with programmes that included vocational, educational and visitor ex"Bush won't necessarily be putting more resources into Russia, but instead maintaining what is there already," Dr Asland said.
"This was otherwise meant to be reduced and now it's more likely to continue."