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Sestanovich: Putin Promotes Guessing Game on Russia’s Leadership

Interviewee: Stephen Sestanovich, George F. Kennan Senior Fellow for Russian and Eurasian Studies
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
October 24, 2007

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Stephen Sestanovich, CFR’s top Russia expert and former ambassador-at-large to the states of the former Soviet Union, says President Vladimir Putin seems to be enjoying keeping the world guessing as to whether he will seek to become prime minister of Russia when his presidency ends in March 2008. On U.S.-Russia relations, Sestanovich says the high-water mark was immediately after 9/11, and now they are about where they were when Putin took office in 2000, mired in disputes over arms control, Kosovo, and Iran. He says Putin appears to be attempting a mediator’s role between Iran and the West with little to show for it thus far.

Russian President Vladimir Putin can’t run again for the presidency under the Russian constitution, but there has been considerable speculation he might become Russia’s prime minister at some point and be a power behind the throne. Do we have any idea who the next president is likely to be?

We have some idea, because Putin has encouraged us to look at some people as candidates and he’s said that there are probably five good candidates out there without naming them. The experts tried to figure out which five he meant. He has appointed Viktor Zubkov as the new prime minister and that person would become acting president if Putin resigned and is certainly in the position to be a credible candidate if Putin nominates him.

There are other candidates in his entourage who are possible contenders, but Putin may be pointing us towards these people precisely to confound us when he picks somebody totally different.

Now what about the prime minister position, what has he said about that?

When he said that he would accept the position of being placed first on the ticket on the United Russia [Yedinaya Rossiya] list in the December 2 parliamentary elections, he also took a question about becoming prime minister and he described it as a realistic possibility. Naturally, if he leads the largest party to victory in the parliamentary elections he would have to be considered for this position. This immediately set some people to thinking that he had decided this was what he was going to do. It’s not completely clear that this is what he intends. He might only have put himself on the United Russia list in order to increase the number of seats that it wins in parliament and thereby make parliament a more manageable body.

During his annual call-in show last week in which the public asks him questions, he was asked whether he thought the time was right to reexamine the distribution of power and stability between the president and the prime ministership. He praised the questioner for having come up with a rather inventive way of asking whether he wanted to become prime minister, but he then said he actually thought this was a bad idea, and that monkeying with the powers of the prime minister and the president was not necessary. Even this, however, can be interpreted in a number of ways. It may mean that he intends to be prime minister and exercise power beyond the literal, constitutional description of the job, or it may mean that he just doesn’t want the job—we’re just going to have to wait and find out.

Putin is enjoying the game that he’s playing with us enormously, and it’s a pretty good game. He’s written the rules and it’s one of the leading international guessing games going.

He’s extremely popular in Russia, right?

It’s interesting. His popularity has gone up steadily over the past several months—from the mid-60s to the low 80s in approval rating. His position on the United Russia list has given the party a boost in the polls and it now seems clear it will win a very, very substantial majority.

What does that party stand for?

It has not stood for very much except the privileges of those who are around Putin and are members of United Russia. It has become a version of what the Russians call the “party of power,” meaning that if you’re a local official or mayor in the provinces you tend to join up. It’s not all that coherent in ideology but it has become associated with Putin, with prosperity, and with Russia’s revival as a big power.

It has benefited from all of those things. Over the past couple of years its standing with the voters has improved substantially. Two or three years ago, right after Putin’s reelection as president, many people wondered whether United Russia would hold together. Those who formed it had in mind that it would be a kind of eternal ruling party in the way that the PRI was in Mexico or the Liberal Democrats are in Japan.

And what about the Communist Party?

The Communists are possibly going to be the only other party in parliament. The polls show United Russia with a very strong majority—the Communists are sort of polling in the high teens and low 20s, and everybody else is falling below the threshold, which is now 7 percent.

If the current polls are right, it’s going to be a big United Russia majority with a small contingent of Communist delegates. Right now the Communists have only forty-odd delegates in a parliament of 450, so they are not a strong number two party. If the polls are right, they’ll probably gain seats, but they will be swamped by United Russia.

Let’s switch gears a bit here and talk about U.S.-Russia relations, because there’s been a lot of speculation in the press about a new “Cold War” emerging. How would you describe the overall U.S.-Russia relations now? Are they much worse than when he took over in 2000, better, or about the same?

Russian-American relations are not so different from when Putin took over. At that time there was a lot of disagreement about ballistic missile defense, about how to deal with the prospect that Iran might get nuclear weapons, about the future of Kosovo, the same issues that are on the agenda today, albeit in slightly different form. And the sides haven’t taken a fundamentally different approach towards them. The broad framework at the time was what the two sides agreed to call a “strategic partnership,” but it didn’t look as though it was a very productive partnership.

After a positive period of relations in the early nineties, relations had ups and downs, but by 2000 we were really in a down period. That was pretty much the tenor of relations when President Bush took office in 2001. What changed the relationship was September 11th. The period after 9/11 was what looked like the best Russian-American relationship ever. That’s the way officials on both sides described it, and some who were a little giddy at what had been achieved even called it an “alliance.”

But that seems like a long time ago now, and what has reasserted itself is a set of disagreements on those issues that I mentioned, a more fickle approach on the part of the Russians, a greater wariness on the part of the United States in dealing with a leader whose democratic credentials are a little questionable and whose willingness to be a prospective partner is also in doubt.

On the specific issues like the Conventional Forces Agreement (CFE) in Europe, Russia wants to pull out of that agreement. Why?

That agreement was reached in the administration of George H.W. Bush. It reflected an interest in getting a reduction of conventional power in Europe, and it was negotiated between the two blocs before the collapse of the Soviet Union. Once the Warsaw Pact and the Soviet Union fell apart, an amended, updated version of it was negotiated in the late 1990s. Recently the Russians have expressed unhappiness with it because they said the roles of the blocs have long gone, and they say this treaty imposes restrictions on their conventional forces, which they are unhappy with.

Western countries have not ratified the CFE treaty because they argue that the Russians have not lived up to the commitments they have made. This includes the withdrawal of Russian forces from former Soviet republics Moldova and Georgia.

The Russians have complained about other restrictions on their forces. They’ve said that there’s been an overall buildup of conventional power in the West that doesn’t serve their interests and isn’t in the spirit of the treaty. In reality the number of tanks among all the countries of NATO [the North Atlantic Treaty Organization] is nearly half of what it was when the treaty was signed, so the trend is downward in relevant categories regulated by the treaty. It seems more like a case of the Russians wanting to revise agreements reached when they believe they were weak.

It’s been said by a number of experts lately that one of the problems in the relationship is that Americans kept saying they “won” the Cold War, and Russians don’t like being seen as a loser, and they say they won the Cold War too because they realized that communism wasn’t working. Was Russian pride hurt by the view in the West that they lost the Cold War?

One hears this from members of the Russian elite. And they’ve clearly convinced some people in the administration that this is the case. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice gave a talk on October 22 at a conference of historians on détente, talking about the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union as a “triumph” for the United States and, she added, “for many in Russia too.”

There is a lot of emotionalism on this subject to this day, and it’s a difficult issue even for many Russian liberals. President Putin said the collapse of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the twentieth century. He wasn’t speaking for himself alone, that is, for alumni of the KGB and for nationalists. There is still a sort of melancholy that surrounds this issue for many Russians, even those who recognize that the Soviet Union was not a viable state and its internal weakness and disorder and conflict had grown so great that it really collapsed of its own weight.

We had this odd situation of Putin attending a summit meeting in Tehran of Caspian Sea nations including, of course, Iran, and then two days later meeting with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert of Israel, who is most concerned about Iran. How would you describe the Russian policy onIranright now?

The most important meetings were in Tehran with Ayatollah Khamenei, the supreme leader. We don’t really know what he said. It is speculated that he presented some new ideas for resolving the impasse between Iran, the West and the EU, and even within the entire UN Security Council. He hasn’t said what those ideas are. It may be that they involve some version of his earlier proposals to Iranto create an international fuel bank that would take responsibility for providing Iran with enriched uranium. Iranians have ruled that out and, when he was in New York, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said the entire nuclear dossier is closed. Presumably, Putin said to the Iranians that statement was premature—you haven’t satisfied the international community that you are really doing what you say you’re doing. And he may have proposed ways of solving this issue to avoid international doubt.

He is saying to the West that he is not prepared to support another round of sanctions after having supported two sanctions resolutions already, and he is trying to maintain some separate Russian position on this issue. His appearance in Iran and his conversations there suggest that he hopes to become a kind of mediator on this question, but it’s been difficult for him because Iranians are not showing any real give on the entire subject and the United States and the EU seem to be pretty united as well. Putin wants to avoid choosing one side or another, but it’s not going to be so easy because the two sides are not telling him that they’re looking for a compromise.

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