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Colton: Putin Likely to Remain Powerful Figure After 2008

Interviewee: Timothy J. Colton, Director, Harvard’s Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
May 24, 2007

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Timothy J. Colton, a leading expert on Russian politics, says that even though Vladimir Putin will have to step down as president of Russia in April 2008, he will likely play a major role in Russia’s leadership and might even move back into the presidency. “You see discussion of the 2012 question, that they install one of these individuals in 2008 and four years later or even sooner, this person could resign, and say ‘I’ve decided that we can’t live without him.’ Putin could then be reelected,” Colton says.

The G8 countries will be meeting in Germany in the early part of June. It will be the first real chance for President Bush and [Russian President Vladimir] Putin to meet in a long time, and for the whole Western world to talk to the Russians about growing tensions between the European Union and the United States on one hand, and the EU and Russia on the other. Do you expect much to come out of this meeting?

I don’t think much ever comes out of the G8 meetings. It doesn’t make any decisions and it has no implementation apparatus, so it’s more of an ongoing dialogue of governments and heads of state. The EU meeting with Russia last week [near Samara in Russia] was a very interesting thing; I don’t think the [contentious] spirit of this will be the same because you have the Canadians involved, the Japanese involved, it’s not like EU-Russia one-on-one. But nonetheless, I would expect that there will be questions asked—by the Americans if no one else will raise them—about the general direction relations are going.

The EU-Russia meeting you talked about apparently featured some lively debate between German Chancelor Angela Merkel, the current head of the EU, and Putin.

There was a mix of irritants between Russia and two new EU members, Poland and Estonia. And there was discussion of human rights within Russia, and what sharpened the issue was that the Russians refused to allow demonstrators to travel to the site, even though I’m sure many Western countries would have taken the same or roughly similar precautions. The Estonia-Poland issues have been developing for quite a while. In the case of the Poles, I think the two-year-old Russian ban on meat imports is one irritant, but it does give the Poles a mechanism for using the weight of the European Union to make their case [Poland has blocked a new EU-Russian trade agreement until Russia lifts the meat import ban].

With Estonia, of course, it’s a war-mongering issue, which also has to do with Russian internal dilemmas. [Estonia recently moved a war memorial commemorating Soviet soldiers from the center of Tallin. This precipitated protests in Estonia from Russians and a subsequent anti-Estonian campaign in Russia with a ban on Estonian imports.]

Putin looked very prickly to me and seemed uncomfortable. Merkel really put him on the spot, and he gave the usual kind of mixed response that he gives.  When she said we would like to think that peaceful demonstrators would be allowed to make a point, politely, at a meeting like this, he said something along the lines of, “well you know these people are marginal groups, they have no numbers or weight on their side, and so there’s no reason for us to be concerned about it, or for people like me to be concerned about it.”

But if they think these groups don’t pose any kind of threat to their interests, then why are they going to such lengths to neutralize them?

On the Estonia issue, I gather this struck a nerve among Russians who’ve never particularly liked the Baltic States. What led to the movement of the war monument?

It’s a very emotional thing. My own personal opinion is the Estonians shouldn’t have moved it, they should have left it there because it’s, let’s say, a physical monument to a period in Estonian history and in twentieth century history. It was bound to inflame emotions between Estonia and Russia and within Russia. However, I would also say that they had every right to do so. This is, in the end, their judgment to make as long as you follow due process, which they seem to have done. The Russians want to have it both ways: They don’t want anybody telling them what to do. Since 2004, the term has been “sovereign democracy,” we’re sovereign, we make our own decisions, we govern our own fate, and no one is going to tell us what to do. But on the other hand when it comes to Estonia, they feel free to exert all this pressure on the “sovereign democracy” next door, which made a decision you could say is right or wrong, but in any case was theirs to make.

Russia’s relations with many of the former Soviet republics that do things not to Moscow’s liking is often rather sharp, isn’t it?

I think it’s fair to say that Russia’s relations with all three of the Baltic countries—Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia—and with Ukraine, Belarus, and Georgia, have become considerably more difficult in the last two or three years. That’s a fair statement. With the rest, though, either you see stability, as in relations with, say, Azerbaijan and Armenia, or actually an improvement when it comes to Central Asia, where the Russians have had some success in building cooperative relationships with old and new governments.

Let’s talk about U.S.-Russian relations. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was in Moscow in May trying to make some headway on the controversial U.S. plan to base interceptor missiles in Poland and radars in the Czech Republic to protect against putative Iranian missiles. The Russians claim this is a military threat to them. The “agreement” from the Rice visit was to soften the rhetoric. Are these relations heading into a downspin?

Well, I think they’re already in a downspin, at the government-to-government level. Clearly there’s a lot of tension, and now we have this ripening problem with Britain as well over the murder of [Alexander] Litvinenko [Russian defector who Britain claims was poisoned in London with a radioactive substance by a Russian agent]. Even President Bush’s comments yesterday [in an interview with Reuters], which I thought were rather mild, nonetheless led today to comments in the Russian press that Bush had violated the understanding that was reached with Rice. But this is a matter of interpretation, because of course there was no written agreement, but they exchanged comments to the effect that it would be a good idea to cool the rhetoric.

Both Bush and Putin are nearing the end of their terms, and in fact Putin’s successor is supposed to be elected next March. It’s interesting how relations have gone on a downward trend. I guess the Iraq war touched it off.

Iraq probably was the biggest irritant, but it’s hardly the only one. I mean, there are a lot of specifics, including the Russian sense that they’re being crowded in their own backyard by American attempts, as they see them, to recruit former Soviet bloc regimes, for essentially the Western alliance system. I think that’s probably the most important thing.

But underlying all of this is a tidal shift in opinion within the Russian elite, a  sense of disappointment with the West, with the United States in particular, that goes back to the 1990s and that’s finally culminated in a kind of elite consensus that Russia was mistreated by the United States then. Therefore, I think there’s a chip on the shoulder about a lot of these interactions, that when Russia was down and weak we did very little to help, but rather systematically sought to buttress our own positions at Russia’s expense. Now Russia’s back and it’s not going to tolerate this any longer. I think that’s the mood of the Russian elite. I’m not saying there’s unanimity on this point, but this would be the position of certainly a large majority of the members of that elite, and in many cases there are individuals who a decade ago had a much more benign view of the United States than they have today. Moods come and go; this doesn’t mean that this is now locked in place for the next generation.

And it’s interesting because Russia is so caught up economically with the West right now. They’re a major supplier of energy. Europe is Russia’s largest trade partner.

Right, and foreign investment in Russia has leapt in recent years.

Of course, the situation today is nothing like the Cold War times.

There are security issues, but again they don’t really compare to those of the Cold War period. They are issues of national stature, standing, and dignity, I think on the Russian side more than anything else.

In your article in Harvard Magazine about Putin, you repeat the likely successors to Putin are either of his two first deputy prime ministers, Sergei Ivanov, or Dmitri Medvedyev .

I did mention there were dark horses, though.

Yes, that’s right. Any new names you’d like to throw in there?

No, but there’s a lot of speculation about this in the Russian media. You hear names like the former Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov mentioned, even though he’s an absolutely colorless figure. Or a man named Vladimir Yakunin, the head of the Russian railway system, who’s a St. Petersburg buddy of Putin’s. Or Sergei Sobyanin, who is his chief of staff, a behind-the-scenes guy. All this is keeping in mind that in 1999 [former President Boris] Yeltsin surprised us by picking Putin as his successor, and so there is the precedent, and he’s certainly going to have a very good chance of imposing whomever he wants. He simply hasn’t tipped his hand yet. But to me, honestly, there are other aspects of the succession process that are equally compelling, including of course what the new person will want once he’s installed. But there also is the question of Putin’s future role, because this is a huge question mark, and what you’re now seeing is people like Boris Gryzlov, the speaker of the Duma who is the leader of the United Russia party in effect, now referring to Putin as “our national leader,” as distinct from just the president of Russia, and insisting that he’s going to have a major role after April 2008, [when the new president takes office] no matter who becomes president.

It would be interesting if he got to be named prime minister, right?

Well, there’s been speculation about this for years, and he probably hasn’t ruled it out. I myself don’t think that will happen. It’s a little risky, but there’s a possibility of him becoming leader of the United Russia party and perhaps not becoming prime minister but just leading the party. There are all of these scenarios, but what Gryzlov was referring to, I think, was something different. I think he was referring to the fact that Putin would still have all authority. The implication was that he would have precedence over whoever was elected president. However, the Russian constitution would not forbid him from making a return to the office of president, so now you see discussion of the 2012 question, that they install one of these individuals in 2008 and four years later or even sooner, this person could resign, and say “I’ve decided that we can’t live without him.” Putin could then be reelected.  So, you know, this is serious talk, I think that this to me has a resonance that him being prime minister or head of Gazprom [the natural gas monopoly] doesn’t really have.

I guess in the Russian soul there is this yearning for a strong man, a czar-like leader?

Well, I’m sure there’s an aspect of that to it, the kind of monarchic approach to leadership in Russia, the czarist tradition if you like, which Yeltsin also embodied in his own way. But more than that, I think he managed to deal with some of the major problems confronting the system, and that he gets a lot of credit for that, sometimes perhaps more credit than he deserves. For example, the economic recovery has been influenced by decisions made since December 1999, but in my view, the key thing here was the painful and messy reforms of the 1990s. Putin’s profited from that enormously. But, you know, the general sense is that he’s restored a certain kind of order to the country. He has quelled the Chechen insurgency, which many people didn’t think was possible. He gets a lot of credit for that.

But whether we like it or not, that’s just a reality, and I think that’s probably the main source of his authority and not so much this monarchic tradition. I mean, the Russian respect for authority didn’t really help [Mikhail] Gorbachev very much; eventually it helped undermine Yeltsin because he was not seen as living up to the myth. A lot of people like Putin’s assertiveness in foreign policy. They feel that outside powers “don’t take us for granted anymore, don’t push us around. Russia is a great power, Russia’s back.”

I thought it was interesting in your article that you did mention something that a lot of people writing about Russia don’t talk about too much, that despite the Kremlin’s efforts at controlling television and much of the press, there is open communication, that cell phone usage is wide open, I guess the internet is open.

It is, and in rather stark contrast to China, although I am aware now of discussion in the Duma of some restrictions of websites. They monitor the internet of course, but as far as I’m aware they don’t interfere. A lot of people have access to it now. In Moscow, almost anybody who has the slightest desire to get access to it can on a daily basis.

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