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U.S. News & World Report
July 21, 2003
A Kremlin conversation
By Mortimer B. Zuckerman

Throughout Russian History, It Has been personal power that has made things happen. Or not. Today that power is centered on President Vladimir Putin. In a recent 2-hour-and-45-minute meeting with him at the Kremlin, it was clear to me that his power has been compounded by his persona, captured in a popular joke making the rounds in Moscow: A reader asks a gardening columnist, "Can you recommend an effective way to protect fruits and vegetables from birds?" Sure, the columnist replies: "A life-size portrait of Vladimir Putin. Displayed prominently, the birds will certainly leave your produce alone."

President Putin's intelligence projects pragmatism, not ideology. With his palpable self-discipline, forcefulness, and mastery of the issues, he is, unsurprisingly, a man of public and private candor. He believes that the erosion of state power is central to the crisis facing Russia today. He is committed to using his office to stop this decline, to rebuild the Russian state, and, most critical, to modernize the economy and integrate it into that of the international community.

Russia has come a long way. The changes, of course, didn't begin with Putin. The country has been demilitarizing and disarming for over a decade, reducing military expenses from an extraordinary 30 percent of gross domestic product to below 5 percent--and slashing its nuclear arsenal by 40 percent. The old top-down, planned economy is history. Today, 70 percent of Russia's economic activity occurs in the private sector. Still, Putin has yet to overcome the legacy of seven decades of totalitarian communism, a rule marked by state-sanctioned fear, corruption, and murder; an economy based on mass labor; and an old-style industrial development that produced virtually nothing competitive in the world market. Oil for overseas and vodka at home was the revenue cocktail.

City life. The institutions and formal and informal political arrangements to which Putin is applying his power are deeply rooted and difficult to change. You wouldn't know this if you visited just Moscow or St. Petersburg, where Soviet drabness has been replaced by bustling new shops, modern offices, and a vibrant cultural life. The endemic shortages and endless lines for goods and services are over. The lives of women, especially the young and educated, have been transformed. There is a substantial middle class. In the fresh air of freedom many such flowers bloom.

Behind this cheerful facade, however, lies a country burdened by its past: a dark inheritance of poverty and corruption. Small towns and rural areas, unseen by tourists and most business visitors, are gripped by wrenching poverty. About a third of the population lives on a dollar a day. Elementary conditions of law and order remain lax, and bribery, at all levels, is accepted as a national way of life. According to one Russian nongovernmental organization, INDEM, Russians spend about $ 37 billion a year on bribes. That's almost as much as Russia's national budget.

Putin has a long way to go to drag his nation into the 21st century. We should wish him well in this. But what should we think of his ambitions, and those of his country, to play a major role on the world stage? Americans, mindful of Russia's troubled past, are deeply suspicious of Moscow. But Putin sees Russia and the United States as having geopolitical interests that coincide rather than collide. The key moment came after the September 11 attacks, when Putin acted swiftly to support President Bush's war against terrorism and the invasion of Afghanistan to root out the Taliban; Russian hostility would have complicated both initiatives terribly. Putin believes that 9/11 vindicated his earlier warnings about international Islamic terrorism as the greatest strategic threat facing western nations, including Russia, in the 21st century. What's more, he sees Russia as closer to the front lines than America--for the most turbulent region in the world stretches along Russia's southern borders from the Middle East to China.

The "Great Game" once described the geopolitical contest between Russia and the West for influence in southern Asia and the approaches to the Middle East. But Putin now feels that Washington and Moscow must play on the same side in this new game that is so much more dangerous than the old. This could make for a positive new U.S.-Russian agenda that Putin believes may become a genuine alliance of trust and shared purpose, with disagreements between friends, not adversaries.

This is a context of shared interests, however, not shared values. Russia is hardly a liberal democracy. The recentralization of power in the Kremlin under Putin has created a managed democracy, or, as one Russian, Grigory Yavlinsky, put it, "a pretend democracy." Still, there has been a massive unwinding of Bolshevism, and there is a commitment to an emerging democracy in Russia with national, state, and local elections.

On specific issues, there are big differences between Washington and Moscow. One is Russia's support for Iran's efforts to acquire nuclear weapons. Russia has been the key sponsor of Iran's Bushehr nuclear power plant. Our fear is that Iran is pursuing nuclear weapons under the guise of a civilian nuclear energy program, a suspicion now supported by much independent evidence of Iran's pursuit of nuclear weapons capabilities.

Battleground. I put this directly to Putin, and he responded positively. Russia, he said, will "review" its role in Iran's effort to develop nuclear capabilities. It will also suspend deliveries of nuclear fuel until it has precise information assuring it will be used for nonmilitary purposes, he told me, and it will limit fuel supplies to Iran and insist on all spent fuel being returned to Russia.

Putin seems to me more determined than in the past to put an end to the assistance to Iran from various Russian entities and individuals. We are right in looking for Russia to eschew assisting Iran with equipment, materials, technology, and other vital capabilities, such as uranium enrichment. But Putin is right in saying there should also be a parallel commitment from Britain, the Netherlands, and Germany, which are also supplying Iran.

Another subject of our conversation was Iraq. Putin declined to support President Bush in the U.S.-led war against Saddam Hussein. Countries like Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, he told me, present far more serious threats, the first as a font of nuclear proliferation, the latter as a source of financial support for terrorists. Many Russians believe that Putin was also motivated by the concern that if he had sided with Bush on Iraq, it would have jeopardized the popularity of the key pro-government party in the Duma. He needs those votes to complete his program of reforms in the coming election next year.

By the same token, Putin made it clear that Russians expect America to understand their view of Chechnya as a critical battleground in the war against Muslim radicals. Russia sees this not just as a national challenge but as a religious threat as well. A key factor is the export from Saudi Arabia of its Wahhabite brand of radical Islam in the form of both financing and cadres of violent young radicals spilling into the region. Islamic fundamentalists have formed two dozen terrorist gangs, which are carrying out increasingly violent attacks, including the horrific seizure of a Moscow theater last year and, now, a wave of suicide bombings.

Our State Department has failed to recognize the extent of these terrorist organizations and has even met with several of their apparatchiks. This concerns Putin, he said, because it confers moral and political support on people who are a menace. Another key element from the Russian perspective is that much of organized crime in Russia has made Chechnya its headquarters.

What must happen for Washington and Moscow to begin marching smartly into the future as partners and allies? First, since between them they possess probably 99 percent of the world's weapons of mass destruction, they have a special responsibility to prevent terrorists or rogue nations from getting their hands on them. That's why Russia's policy toward Iran will be a key test. On the American side, we must work to repeal the Jackson-Vanik amendment to the 1974 Trade Act, which ties Russia's normal trade relations status to emigration rights. Unfortunately, easement of the Jackson-Vanik restraints has become tied, in typical American style, to local politics. Joseph Biden, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, is using it as leverage to impose additional U.S. poultry exports on Russia. Moscow is the largest single importer of American chicken parts, accounting for half of all U.S. exports and 70 percent of all of Russia's poultry imports. Lots of those chickens come from Biden's home state of Delaware. Poultry politics, anyone?

Second, we must relax laws that restrain Russia's steel exports. At the very least, we should seek a new bilateral trade agreement with Russia that would effectively serve as a precursor to Russia's accession to the World Trade Organization. This would allow Putin to force Russian executives to make many key industries adhere to international standards. It is critical for the United States to look carefully at how we can expedite Russia's entry into the WTO.

Finally, Chechnya. We must take care not to let suspicion of Russian belligerence there lead us to sanction yet another safe haven for terrorists.

Not surprisingly, there are many who believe that Russia may once again become a strategic enemy of the United States. But they fail to see what has happened in Russia. Its pro-western tilt is dictated not just by a personal inclination of one leader but also by a public that yearns for Russia to become an integral part of the modern community of nations. The Cold War is not coming back, even though the public image of the United States in Russia has declined dramatically because of the war in Iraq. A weakened Russia has a greater capacity to do mischief in the world than to do good. Our challenge is to remake relations between the two former adversaries so that we can work with Russia as an ally in the difficult times that lie ahead for us both.

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