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#10 - JRL 7256
July 18, 2003
Pravda.ru Interview: Some “Untimely Thoughts” from an Outsider Looking in
Pravda.ru interviews an American analyst-commentator who often bucks the conventional wisdom held by many foreigners when it comes to Russia. Pravda’s Dmitry Litvinovich interviewed Peter Lavelle, who writes for many international and Russian news outlets and author of a weekly electronic newsletter on Russia

Pravda: Thank you for meeting with Pravda.

PL: It is my pleasure.

Pravda: I will cut to the chase. What is your interpretation of what is happening in Russian politics? Yukos is under siege, elections are on the horizon, and the terrorist conflict in Chechnya has come to Moscow. Do you see a fundamental shift in what former Soviet leaders would describe as the “correlations of forces”?

PL: Well, all are big questions with no short answers. I like the term “correlations of forces” though – it is a useful term to explain what is happening in Russia. The “correlation of forces” that President Vladimir Putin inherited upon assuming office has changed over the past three years. His first imperative was to call a truce of sorts between the Kremlin and the oligarchs. It worked for a while, but now both sides demand a re-negotiation of the deal, what I call Putin’s “social contract”. The deal negotiated was static though, it could not anticipate how Russia would change. The oligarchs learned something about value-creation and financial transparency. This has made Russia an investment opportunity for a number of foreigners.

Unfortunately, Russia’s bureaucracy has not learned the same forward-looking ideas. The bureaucracy remains a rent-seeker – meaning interested in bribes and extortion. The bureaucracy has watched the oligarchs amass enormous wealth over the past three years and demands an enhanced percentage of profits generated. The oligarchs – the business world in general – have had enough of supporting a state bureaucracy that survives off the work of others. My sense it that Putin will finally be forced to a re-negotiate the “social contract” that will reign in the most zealous state officials while assuring the business world that he is serious about doubling Russia’s GDP in a decade. If this is not done, Russia will face more political instability, not economic growth. If Putin can actually do this is a big question though.

On elections, too much is made of Russia’s experiment with democracy. With Kremlin control of the electronic media, I have little doubt that Kremlin interests will be found in the next Duma. In this realm, there is little real opposition to the Kremlin. The Communists will not put up a real fight because they are comfortable with the perks of power given to them for being the “loyal opposition”. The parties that will make up the next will be those the Kremlin does not object to. The present interest in which party or parties the Kremlin will support is mostly media hype. By the way, I do not believe that the attack against Yukos has much to do with the upcoming elections. The current Kremlin-oligarchy conflict is staged as an elections confrontation. Both the oligarchs are comfortable with this – it legitimatizes their respective claims when hoping to appease an electorate that neither really cares about.

On Chechnya and terrorism in Moscow, these are issues I usually do not comment on. The Chechen issue is very complex and I do not pretend to be an expert on this subject. However, being a former professor of history, it seems clear to me that almost all conflicts similar to the Chechen War are finally settled through serious political negotiation. I am not against seeking out and destroying terrorists – I live not far from the place of the most recent terrorist attack in Moscow. What I have reservations about is how the war against terrorism is being fought. Not unlike the US approach, Russia’s anti-terrorist policy seems to create more terrorist designs than lessen them. Both Chechen terrorists and the Kremlin are not interested in peace - this is the greatest problem.

Thus, the answer to the central question concerning the “correlation of forces”, it seems to me that Putin’s Kremlin has a learning curve problem. Russia is changing in many ways, but the occupant in the Kremlin is not keeping up Russia’s changes.

Pravda: You ended the first set of questions commenting on President Vladimir Putin. What is your impression of the Russian president?

PL: Vladimir Putin has to be one of the most interesting leaders in the world. He is hard to read as he does not talk a lot - but when does, he says even less. The last two weeks have been the nadir of his presidency. A few weeks ago he was on top the world, lauded by the world’s leaders. However, at home his power and/or influence is not what it seems. To use a sports metaphor, I liken Putin’s political power to that of an umpire. Having said that, I still believe Putin is probably the best leader Russia can afford at the moment.

Pravda: How do you assess American-Russian relations at the moment? Are they as bad or good as some analysts, journalists, politicians claim?

PL: The think that US-Russia relations are on the best possible footing considering how fast the world is changing. The paradigm shift American foreign policy has then since September 11 impacts the relationships the US has with every country, not just Russia. The tension US-Russia relations experienced during the Iraq war has a silver lining as well. Before the war and after September 11 was period of unrealistic expectations for bi-lateral relations. The US and Russia have many issues in common, though there are differences as well. Since the war, I think most would agree the bi-lateral relationship has become more pragmatic. This is good for both countries.

Pravda: Why is your website called “Untimely Thoughts”, where does it come from? It sounds something like coming from our Maksim Gorky.

PL: Indeed, it does come from Maksim Gorky. His commentary on Russian politics during the Bolshevik Revolution was quite remarkable. Having read his Nesvoyevremennye mysli (Untimely Thoughts) that ran in the newspaper Novaya zhizn' (New Life), I could not but help to want to write in the same spirit.

Pravda: A few softball questions: why do you live here? You are from California after all! What attracts you to Russia?

PL: I am asked these questions all the time. Why Russia? My academic and later business backgrounds brought me here, I suppose. Plus, and very importantly, my Russian wife of three months is a reason for me to be in this country. I am here to stay.

Pravda: As you mentioned, the election season is upon us. We here at Pravda.ru hope you will visit us again to provide us with your spin on things.

PL: I almost always go where I am invited. Of course, I would like to have another chat.

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