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Russia Profile
September 10, 2006
Russia Experts Granted Ample Answers to Softball Questions
By Andrei Zolotov Jr, Editor

Over a dinner in his suburban residence lasting more than three hours, President Putin reiterated his decision to leave office in 2008, described himself as a citizen rather than a politician, and reveled in Russias new friendship with China. He also disclosed an interest in his familys genealogy and hinted at CIA agents involvement in Russias 1990s privatization.

We would like you to feel the desire on our part to work absolutely openly he announced at the start of the meeting with the group of leading academics and journalists specializing in Russia, known as the Valdai Discussion Club. The group, brought together by state-owned news agency RIA Novosti, the non-governmental Council on Foreign and Defense Policy, along with Russia Profile, The Moscow Times and Russia in Global Affairs, was created to foster dialog and improve Russias image abroad. In the wake of the G8 summit, the central topic of this years sessions in Moscow and Hanty-Mansiisk, Western Siberia, was Russias role in global energy security.

In contrast to harsh international criticism of Russia ahead of the G8 summit in July, and unlike similar meetings in the previous years, the usually sharp-tongued experts were put so much at ease by the delicious dinner of octopus carpaccio, langoustine and zucchini lasagna, the choice of baked sea bass with artichoke soup or veal with chanterelle and black truffle fricassee, all followed by warm figs with yogurt sorbet and a selection of deserts, that they hardly asked any hardball questions. Organizers feared that Putin, who had previously enjoyed the challenges posed by the Valdai experts, would be bored, while participants joked that Mirko Zago -- the Italian chef from Moscows Syr restaurant, whom Putin introduced to the group and toasted between discussing the Eastern pipeline and the inflation rate, emerged as the main newsmaker Saturday.

Yet there were some things Putin articulated for the first time.

Energy Issues

In response to a question from Georgetown University Professor Angela Stent, Putin said he would like to depart from the terminology of the past and not use the term energy superpower, which, he said, is deliberately fed to the media in order to bring about an association with the horrible Soviet Union.

I have never said that Russia is some sort of a superpower, Putin said. But we have more [energy] resources than most other countries. Everybody has to understand that these are our national resources and cast no greedy eye at another mans pie as if it is theirs. But we have always wanted to behave as a responsible market player.

He thanked his G8 partners for reluctantly accepting that energy security is both the security of demand and of supply. Yet he continued to criticize the Energy Charter the EU presses Russia to ratify as being neither in the interest of supplier nor consumer, as the (EU endorsed) liberalization of gas pipelines would generate windfall profits to transit companies.

He said Russia is ready to grant foreign companies access to the heart of its economy production and transportation of hydrocarbons only when it is certain of what Russia will get in response. Putin complained that Russia was denied access to advanced technologies and downstream markets in Europe. There used to be COCOM lists, now some other lists, he said.

Challenging Prejudices

Illustrating the double standards in regard to Russia, Putin said that when Russia had tried to officially hire a U.S. lobbying company to lobby its interests on Capitol Hill, the companies told the Kremlin that the State Department had advised them against taking up Russias order. The State Department then denied it. At least one of them was lying to us, Putin said.

This is peanuts, he said. Simply there is this presumption of guilt, which had been there in regard to the Soviet Union and has been automatically extended to Russia.

Iran

Putins comments on the Iranian nuclear program, which he himself presented simply as a reiteration of Russias position, were nonetheless perceived by experts as a hardening of Moscows approach to Tehran.

Putin repeated his proposal for international centers of uranium enrichment and spent fuel processing and said the problem of countries, which are on the threshold of possessing nuclear technology, is a global issue. Iran, nonetheless, is a special case because neither Brazil, nor South Africa set the goals in their constitution to eliminate other states something that the leaders of Iran do declare in regard to Israel.

As far as the potential sanctions are concerned, we have to think about it carefully with our colleagues in the six [U.S., France, Germany, Britain, China and Russia], then have additional consultations with Iran, and only then move on to consider the issue of sanctions, he said. It would be better if we manage to avoid them [sanctions].

Clifford Kupchan of the Eurasia Group, who asked about Iran, said later in an interview that Putin made a more forceful statement than before.In the tone of his comments he was closer to the U.S. position than any other Russian official, he said.

The West

This was not the only area where Putin positioned himself as more pro-Western than the average Russian. When Andrew Kuchins of The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace told Putin that U.S. President George Bush, who had met recently with a group of Russia experts, was concerned with the growth of anti-Americanism on Russian state television, Putin said he did not agree with such a stance.

They (media) say what people want to hear from them, Putin said. It is not part of the medias job description to look into the future of Russian-American relations. There is a difference between the mood of the society and the policy of the Russian government.

The problem in Russia-U.S. relations is that our colleagues do not try to look for a compromise, Putin said. They simply insist on the solutions which they see as the best.

Putin emphasized the importance of his good relations with Bush, which only grew because of the recent problems on the periphery, the general worseing of the cflimate of US russia relationsreferring to fractious Between courses, Putin spoke off mic to Nikolai Zlobinof the Washington-based World Security Institute, saying he saw Bushs aides as his enemies. Curiously, Zlobin said, Bush had had a mirror vision of the situation in the Kremlin: during a recent meeting with Russia experts, the U.S. president said he thought Putins aides were damaging him.

In his off mic comments, which could be only partly heard across the table, Putin partially confirmed Bushs perception. He said he saw himself not as a politician, but a citizen, who is governed by what he sees as best for the country and not by the need to boost ones popularity. Yet, he said, he was surrounded by politicians who had a different mentality to his. Zlobin, who sat close to Putin, said that Russian president observed it was hard for him to work with his entourage.

I look at things from the viewpoint of conscience and morals, Zlobin quoted Putin as saying. When the choice is between a politically more correct and a morally justified decision, I make the moral decision.

The East

Much of the conversation was dedicated to the recently prominent Asian vector of Russias politics. Putin said the present level of relations with China was unprecedented and that he was very impressed by the progress of Chinese reforms. Thanking Shanghai University Professor Feng Shao lei for an invitation to speak at the university, Putin said he could hardly compare the Shanghai he had seen in 1994 when he traveled there as deputy governor of St. Petersburg, with the Shanghai he saw recently.

Its a splendid, outstanding global city, he said. It overwhelms, it overwhelms!

Putin proudly reported that that 250 kilometers of an Eastern pipeline to China and the Pacific had been built in the last two months, and that while today Russia sends 3 percent of its energy exports to Asia, in 15 to 20 years it plans to raise this share to 30 percent.

When asked about the Shanghai Cooperation Agreement, Putin said he had a revelation to make.

We had never planned that the Shanghai Cooperation Agreement would develop that much, he said. It was created with a utilitarian purpose as a mechanism to solve the border issues between the Peoples Republic of China and the neighboring states.

Trying to sooth Western concerns over SCA intentions, Putin said Russia will approach its expansion with great caution.

I know that in the depths of the government apparatus, in the secret services they think that Russians and Chinese have some secret mechanism, that they are conspiring something, he said. But it just happened to be in demand. After the fall of the bipolar world there is an evident demand in the world for some alternative center of influence. We see it and we react to it, but we dont plan it.

Discussing relations with Japan, Putin said that the fact that the border issue with China was finally solved after 40 years of negotiations, makes you think that the border issue with Japan will also be solved sooner or later. He said he saw an intention on the part of Japanese leadership to work on solving the Southern Kurils issue. Not to use it for internal political purposes, where it is a very sensitive issue, but to solve it, Putin said.

Europe

In discussing relations with Europe, Putin reiterated his position that granting independence to Kosovo would supply an unwelcome precedent for the frozen conflicts in Nagorno-Karabakh, Transdnestr, South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

What are the differences? None! he said emotionally. I dont know how you are going to be interpreting all this for the mass media, but I am convinced that each of you perfectly understands it.

He said he did not rule out using a veto in the Security Council if the question of Kosovo's independence came up without taking Serbia into account. It is an extreme measure, of course, but it does not exist to simply lie about in a chest, Putin said.

He felt bitter about the rift with the West over the so-called Dmitry Kozak plan for Transdnestr settlement in 2004. We were one step away from settling the Transdnestr issue! Putin said. But the fears of our partners in the United States and Western Europe foiled everything and returned the situation to square one. It was a major mistake of European diplomacy.

Putin clearly sees the relations between Russia, European Union and the United States as triangular. Commenting on the protests against the construction of the Baltic pipeline from Russia to Germany, Putin said they were clearly political and likened them to the U.S. attempts to resist the construction of the first major gas pipeline between the Soviet Union and West Germany in the 1970s.

Likewise, he said that Russia-U.S. relations will flourish only when Europe gets stronger. I hope that as Europe politically matures and strengthens its statehood, those in the United States who think that they are interested in a strong and independent Russia and an improvement in Russian-American relations, will gain force.

Population Issues

Answering the question on demography asked by the renowned face of Russian studies, H?l?ne Carr?re d'Encausse, Putin said he would prefer to boost the birth rate and decrease mortality while accepting only as many immigrants as Russia can assimilate, even though it is lucky to have former Soviet citizens.

They havent come here yet, yet they are already assimilated, he said to laughter from the audience. However, it is important to think about the interests of the native population, because if we dont do it, we will create conditions for the growth of radical organizations.

Surprisingly, none of the participants directly raised tougher issues such as ethnic riots in Kondopoga or the situation in the Caucasus and it was Putin himself, who touched upon the problems of Russias democracy towards the end of the meeting, when he said that strengthening the multi-party system and real self-government are issues he would need to leave for his successor to tackle plus another major unsolved problem: corruption.

Corporate Governance & The State's Interests

The only slightly uncomfortable moment came when Marshall Goldman, the well-known Harvard professor of Russian economics, asked about the conflict of interest Russias top government officials might face as they chair the boards of presumably commercial companies.

I find it difficult to understand how [Kremlins deputy chief of staff and reportedly the leader of the Soviet secret services veterans grouping in the Kremlin] Mr. [Igor] Sechin can be objective when he deals with oil companies other than Rosneft? Goldman asked.

They dont work there, they represent the state interests in the companies, where the state owns a share, Putin answered. Mr. Sechin has no problem of objectivity, because he doesnt run Rosneft. Would it be better for independent experts and lawyers to represent the state interests? Perhaps, one day we will grow up for that. So far, whenever we had experts and lawyers in such positions, they tended to start their own private businesses.

Then Putin swiftly shifted the subject from one secret service to another and apparently from one Harvard economist to another. There is a criminal case currently under way in the United States involving those who had been involved with privatizations in our country. It turned out that, firstly, they were CIA agents and, secondly, they lined their pockets at our expense. he said.

He appeared to refer to Harvard consultants on Russian privatization, economist Andrei Shleifer and his assistant Jonathan Hay, who were charged with defrauding the U.S. Agency for International Development by investing privately while working as USAID-paid Russian government consultants. Until Saturday, only fringe Russian press such as ultra-nationalist Zavtra and anti-establishment The Exile, had run the story, citing former Deputy Prime Minister Vladimir Polevanov and unnamed FSB sources that Hay had been a CIA agent.

We are not particularly spinning it, but its a fact, Putin said without naming the alleged agents. Angela Stent said afterwards that the comment was not quite clear to the Americans in the room.

And how does Putin understand sovereign democracy?, another Harvard professor, Timothy Colton, asked. In Putins view, there is some contradiction in the term, because sovereignty applies to Russia's external characteristics while democracy refers to its internal organization. However, economically advanced countries which possess a practical monopoly on global media often use such resources to pursue primarily their own self-interests.

I dont interfere in this discussion [about sovereign democracy] and dont think it is harmful, Putin said. If in the course of this discussion some ideas emerge, which can be used in both the internal life of the country and in international strategy fine with me.

Putin occasionally told a joke or passed a barb at his Western counterparts. Commenting on the hike of gas prices to Ukraine, resulting in a temporary drop of pressure in the European pipeline, Putin said the criticism of this measure was conditioned by the desire on the part of European and American politicians to support the Orange Revolution in Kiev.

If you support it pay for it!, he said. Otherwise you want to have political dividends and we are supposed to pay for it.

However, he strongly praised Ukrainian President Victor Yushchenko as a reliable politician for signing a five-year-term agreement with Russia on the transit of its gas to Europe.

Answering a question about the role of religion in Russia, Putin said that he had recently discovered through church records of confessions that his paternal family lived in a village some 120- kilometers outside of Moscow since 1680.

What did it mean to go to confession every week, especially for a peasant? Putin said. The Church has always played a huge role in Russia. It was an institution that created Russian statehood. It was both a moral school and an administrative structure.

The moral component of life has always been very important in Russia, he said, and he felt the government was indebted to Russias traditional religions for the damage inflicted during Soviet rule. He thus favored government support of the Church without losing the secular character of the Russian state.

2008?

After about three hours, the inevitable question of 2008 was brought up by the director of the French Institute of International Relations Thierry de Montbrial, who asked Putin how he would react to popular demands to stay in the office? Putin reciprocated: And would you support such demands?

After a diplomatic answer from Montbrial, Putin said that although the vast majority of Russians would support his continued stay in the office, it is a matter of principle for him to step down in order to maintain institutional stability in the country.

The fate of such a huge country should not be hung on the fate of one man, even if this man is myself, he said.

Alexander Rahr, director of Russia and CIS programs in Germanys Koerber Zentrum, said he saw Putin as very confident and happy with his achievements as president.

He changed Russia, Rahr said in an interview after the meeting. He is leaving, but very reluctantly because he feels he can do much more for the country. I completely rule out that he is leaving politics altogether.

After the group posed for a photo with Putin outside the residence, Ariel Cohen, senior fellow of The Heritage Foundation, asked the president for an autograph on the dinner menu. Putin agreed, other participants followed suit, and for another several minutes the leading Russia experts mobbed the president for a signature on the menus, which most of them took as souvenirs.