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Unwrapping the Putin enigma

at 03/08/2009 20:47

Anna Arutunyan

Ten years ago this week, an aging Boris Yeltsin decided on a successor after going through four prime ministers in a year. His choice for the premier's job was the then-little known chief of the Federal Security Service, Vladimir Putin.

Now back in the prime minister's chair after two presidential terms and a steady approval rating that averages 74 per cent, Putin remains, for some, as much a stranger as when The New York Times first described the former KGB colonel as a "grey eminence."

For the West, if Russia was the riddle, then Putin was the enigma.

Yet, from Putin's standpoint, it is the Western media that has misread him and his policies.

"Those who wanted to understand who Putin is have already done so," said Putin's avuncular press secretary, Dmitry Peskov, in a recent interview in his office in the White House. "Those who did not wish to do so - well, they will never [understand] him."

What is striking, Peskov said, is that some Western journalists are still asking the same questions as they were asking in 1999 and 2000, when Putin, who was named acting president when Yeltsin shocked the country by resigning suddenly on New Year's Eve, won the election three months later.

"There are a lot of journalists who are under the influence of various rumors and deliberate distortions of reality," said Peskov. "Very often journalists cannot handle their own emotions, they are enthralled by prejudices."

This theme of being deliberately misunderstood recurred a number of times during the interview, which took place a day after the July 15 kidnapping and killing of Grozny-based human rights activist Natalia Estemirova.

(As if to back up Peskov's point, during the interview he had to field a call from a Western journalist, asking if there was any truth to allegations that Putin bore some responsibility for Estemirova's death, due to his appointment of controversial strongman Ramzan Kadyrov as Chechen president in 2007.)

The sincere dismay at a purported anti-Russia bias - Peskov would often smile to get his point across, saying he "pities" several journalists working in Moscow who "hate Russia with every fibre of their souls" - frequently comes through in Putin's own interaction with the media.

'Collateral damage'

Most of what the public knows about national leaders they learn from journalists. But journalists and politicians don't always get along, and Putin's relationship with the media was not easy - certainly, at first.

One of the first media controversies came after the explosion of the Kursk submarine in the Barents Sea in August 2000, just five months after Putin's election. When CNN's Larry King asked what happened - his first question in the interview after a friendly greeting - Putin, still smiling, said baldly, "It sunk." And his smile slowly melted away.

The next flashpoint came in April 2001, when Gazprom-Media engineered the takeover of NTV, an independent television station owned by another leading oligarch of the Yeltsin era, Vladimir Gusinsky.

The takeover was not connected to NTV's coverage of the Kursk incident, said Yevgeny Kiselyov, who was NTV general director at the time and remains a vocal critic of Putin. It mostly involved financial tensions between the channel's owner, Vladimir Gusinsky, and his creditors, including Gazprom. The Kremlin wanted the channel to be more malleable, and less overtly critical of government.

The journalists, Kiselyov said, were "collateral damage" in a war over the station: amid the lawsuits over NTV, a number of the journalists, including Kiselyov, were interrogated and pressured by prosecutors in what Kiselyov said were ludicrous cases.

But after NTV commentator Svetlana Sorokina publicly appealed to Putin to stop the "needless" persecution in January 2001, the pressure eased immediately - and Putin invited her and about a dozen journalists to a meeting.

"Putin is deeply convinced that journalists only do what their owners order them to do," Kiselyov said in a recent interview. "He was always sceptical about the possibility of independent journalism."

Kiselyov went on to describe the three-hour meeting in Putin's library, just days after Sorokina's statements. Before the group meeting, Sorokina was invited for a one-on-one talk with Putin, emerging about 40 minutes later with a look that Kiselyov described as "everything is hopeless."

For the first part of the talks that ensued, Kiselyov described Putin as endearing. But once the journalists made it clear that they would not allow themselves to be manipulated, Putin's tone became harsher.

Kiselyov said that when tried to address Putin, the president said: "As for you, Yevgeny Alexeyevich, I know all about your hour-long telephone conversations with Gusinsky."

Kiselyov puts down Putin's reluctance to be interviewed publicly by domestic media - and his preference for press conferences with hundreds of journalists - particularly to this distrust.

Peskov said it was not Putin's policy to refuse individual interviews with domestic media, but was merely down to a lack of time. "Perhaps it is our own shortcoming," he said, smiling. He added that the "transparency" of Putin's daily work, which is covered by the media, spoke for itself.

"I don't know a single leader, except perhaps Fidel Castro, who can explain his point of view patiently for hours in front of journalists," Peskov said. "But unfortunately I've only seen a few [journalists] who have admitted this."

The $1.3 trillion question

The cornerstones of Putin's popularity rating and his success at home are actually steps in a long-term plan that has yet to be achieved, experts interviewed for this article said. And a big part of that was reining in the chaos left over from the 1990s to create economic stability. What remains is consolidating social stability and diversifying the economy.

This is where the boon and the bane of Putin's era come in: the high oil prices that lay behind the boom.

When Putin took over as president, Russia's main crude oil blend, Urals, stood at about $23 per barrel. Oil prices remained relatively stable, but then shot up from 2004, just as Putin's second term was beginning, on the back of Middle East tensions and rising Chinese energy demand.

As president, Putin accomplished four key things, said Sergei Markov, a long-time Kremlin adviser who is now a United Russia State Duma deputy: First was what was widely seen by Russians as a successful campaign in Chechnya. Second - equally popular with the public - was a victory over the oligarchs. Third was overcoming the economic crisis inherited from the 1990s, and finally, what Markov called "a victory over the West, which tried to limit Russia's sovereignty."

"In part, Putin accomplished a counterrevolution," said Markov. "He bolstered newly-created, revolutionary institutions, such as property owners. Economic growth helped expand their wealth."

In other words, the vast majority of the country's richest business tycoons - excluding "defeated" oligarchs such as Gusinsky, Boris Berezovsky and the jailed former Yukos owner Mikhail Khodorkovsky - were happy under Putin's presidency.

The $1.3 trillion generated by oil and gas over the last decade was crucial in footing the bill for the recovery. The question inevitably arises: would Putin have managed the same economic performance without the $1.3 trillion?

"I think it would have been impossible to have the same policies with lower oil," said Chris Weafer, chief strategist at UralSib. "We would have had to have policies that would be geared to attracting much larger volumes of foreign investment. Maybe that would have meant that we would have had to focus on creating a more investor-friendly climate, and push harder to fight corruption. The fact that oil has been going up has meant that those policies have been delayed."

Weafer said it was to Putin's credit that he used those revenues the way he did. Other oil-rich countries in Latin America and the Middle East have benefited from high oil prices, "but they haven't been able to attain the same level of stability." That money, in other words, could have been "wasted or misused," but it largely went on improving the economy, Weafer said.

Before the global financial crisis hit last year, the next stage in Putin's plan, according to Markov and Weafer, was consolidating society and diversifying the economy.

"I believe there is a big picture, a long-term plan, which would lead Russia in 20 years to a more diverse economy," said Weafer. "His terms as president were spent fixing existing problems in the economy" to pave the way for the next stage.

Putin's next political challenge, said Markov, was "normalisation" - the kind in which teachers and doctors start getting "normal" wages and Russia's infrastructure is restored. If this new stage of development fails to materialise, there will be "either degradation, or other political alternatives," said Markov.

Some business leaders are wary of expecting too much in reforming a country as large as Russia, and say that Putin's economic strategy is not so mysterious or unpredictable.

"He is a social market economy liberal, that is why he feels relatively at home in Germany," said Hans-Jörg Rudloff, chairman of Barclays Capital and an independent director on Rosneft's supervisory board. "He is not oriented towards the kind of Anglo-Saxon liberalism that we know."

Foreign policy shift

At home, Putin is widely credited with restoring Russia's global standing. But in the US, Putin is seen as steering Russia away from the West.

His failed attempt to support the pro-Russian candidate Viktor Yanukovych in the 2004 Ukrainian presidential elections, which ended in the Orange Revolution, and the souring of relations with Georgia after pro-Western president Mikhail Saakashvili came to power, prompted fears in Moscow that the US was trying to encroach on Russia's traditional sphere of influence. The gas rows with Ukraine and the war with Georgia in August 2008 brought these tensions to the fore.

A defining moment was Putin's speech in Munich in February 2007, when he said that Russia would deploy an "asymmetric response" to anything from NATO expansion to the instalment of a missile shield in Eastern Europe.

"Any stereotype is bad," said Peskov. "In a way, it is an extreme perception of reality. ... In public perception, large, powerful countries such as Russia have always drawn a lot of attention. Unfortunately, very often we have seen, and continue to see, attempts to demonise Russia - and hence the demonising of everything and everyone who is associated with Russia."

Yet according to Stephen Cohen, professor of Russian Studies and History at New York University, Putin's foreign policy has been focused on integration with the West, despite the varying results.

Putin was the first to call US President George W. Bush after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States, and gave support to the US-Afghan coalition that defeated the Taliban a month later. "Putin argued that the act would at last bring partnership," said Cohen. "He even said the word entente, believing that the two countries would now be real partners."

But after the Taliban were overthrown, "Russia was excluded", Cohen said.

Then, in 2002, the US withdrew from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, which was signed by the Soviet Union and the US in 1972 and limited the number of ABM systems. For the US, this paved the way for a missile shield in Eastern Europe.

For Russia, it was a key turning point, said Cohen. "That is when Russia began to turn away from the United States. At that point, pro-American policy lay in ruins."

The Munich speech, in which Putin said the "era of one-way concessions is over" and outlined his priority for a multi-polar world, was, according to Cohen, Putin's attempt to explain "what [the US] had done to the possibility" of partnership.

Russia hopes that the new US administration of Barack Obama will turn a leaf and indeed "resets" bilateral relations. While Russia too has a new president, Putin continues to wield considerable power from his post as prime minister, and a lot depended on his meeting last month with President Barack Obama.

Was there a moment when the leaders looked into the others' eyes?

Peskov didn't see it that way. "They had a pretty short meeting, even though it went longer than planned. After all, Putin is not his counterpart, although he has a lot of experience in foreign relations."

As for Obama's comments about Putin having "one foot in the old ways" of doing things, Peskov said: "It's gladdening that, as we had hoped, Obama changed his point of view" of Putin after the meeting.

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