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#6 - JRL 2006-206 - JRL Home
Russia Profile
September 11, 2006
The Elder Statesman
Western Scholars See How Putin Has Matured

Comment by Nikolai Zlobin

Nikolai Zlobin is Director of Russian and Eurasian Programs at the World Security Institute in Washington, D.C. He contributed this comment to Russia Profile.

During his meeting with foreign experts on Russia at his residence at Novo-Ogaryovo, Vladimir Putin seemed like an outgoing president. Neither Mikhail Gorbachev nor Boris Yeltsin gave any indication of stepping down until the very last days of their tenures, and this is part of the reason Russian politics is sometimes viewed as unpredictable and unstable. If Putins answers to questions posed by foreign experts didnt sound quite like a farewell address, they certainly sounded like he had begun to reach conclusions, summarizing his experience as the head of Russia for almost six years.

In his conversation with the members of the Valdai Discussion Club, he took the opportunity to think aloud about what he had achieved and what he failed to do, focusing mainly on Russias relationship with the West and how he had helped ordinary Russians.

Putin was visibly pleased with the fact that Russia has paid all of its debts to the Paris club of creditors and could now defend its national interests without concerning itself with the opinions of its creditors. He criticized the United States and the EU for disregarding Russias concerns and suggestions, saying that U.S. politicians do not look for a compromise insisting simply on the solutions which they see as the best. But he did not threaten the West with an energy boycott, and even downplayed the term energy superpower. He made it clear that Russia could be a great country without being called a superpower. Putins comments indicated that he wants to continue Russias engagement with the West and especially with the EU, Russias main trading partner. Putins primary message to the West was that it should stop applying a political read anti-Russian approach to Russia and its neighbors, and instead pursue common interests. He defended the Northern European Gas Pipeline, which will run under the Baltic Sea, as a project that enhanced the energy security of Germany in particular and the EU in general, and expressed dismay that the project is criticized in Berlin and Brussels.

Additionally, Putin showed obvious pride that he had started to solve some of the countrys social problems through new market-oriented methods rather than handing out aid, as his predecessors often did. When asked to name the greatest achievement of his presidency, Putin said it was the fact that the share of people living below the poverty line in Russia dropped from 40 percent to 20 percent. When asked to name his biggest disappointment, he cited the fact that the remaining 20 percent were still poor. He acknowledged that the number is high, much more than in any other developed country and noted that fighting poverty will be his successors most difficult task.

Putin stressed that pouring petrodollars in to the old socialist system is not the answer. Instead, he said that Russia should use its energy windfall to create an economy based on knowledge. His message was that only a functioning industrialized society and not high oil prices can fight poverty.

It is certainly possible to argue with Putins assessment of Russias potential friends and partners as well as with his appraisal of his domestic achievements. Some critics might argue that the solutions suggested by the United States for Russia are sometimes actually more realistic or democratic than Kremlin-touted compromises, particularly in Ukraine or Kosovo. It is also possible to argue that the poorest 20 percent of Russians actually became poorer under Putin and that those whose incomes are now above the poverty line continue to live a miserable life. But it is impossible to deny that Putin is looking for a solution to these problems along the new lines, abandoning the old Soviet methods of confrontation with the West and equal distribution of public funds.

Some of Putins techniques, however, could be traced back to the pre-Soviet era, including the very source of his power his high standing among the population. He portrays himself as an ordinary citizen who has been granted power, rather than someone who has devoted his life to politics. He said there were just two requirements for any decision he makes: it must be good for the country and it had to be trusted by the people.

In many ways, this is the stereotype of a good tsar, who communicates to his people directly, without the formalities of a political system, laws or elections. But of course Putin is not the only world leader to succeed by embracing such sentiments. U.S. President George W. Bush also claims to be guided by morals in his decisions and calls himself a gut feeling man, trying to feel and use the wishes of the people.

Some might call Putins words contradictory. After all, how can he say the country needs a real multiparty system but disregard political formalities; or speak about modernization of the country while using archaic psychological patterns for his own legitimization? Yet history is full of examples of political leaders who happened to be good for liberalism without being liberals themselves. Hopefully, the outgoing Putin will fall into the same category.