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Sestanovich: Bush Will Press Putin on Backsliding

Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Visiting Fellow
Interviewee: Stephen Sestanovich, George F. Kennan Senior Fellow for Russian and Eurasian Studies
May 4, 2005


Stephen R. Sestanovich, the top Russia expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, says the upcoming meeting between George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin offers the U.S. president a chance to continue pressing his Russian counterpart on democratic reform. The topic came up at the last Bush-Putin session, held earlier this year in Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia. The Moscow get-together, Sestanovich says, is a “good opportunity to carry forward some of the discussion that [Bush] began at Bratislava in February, beginning with the question of whether Russia is sliding backwards from whatever level of democratic progress it has attained.” The meeting coincides with observances in Moscow of the 60th anniversary of Victory in Europe Day- VE Day- which marked the end of the European phase of World War II.

Sestanovich, a Clinton administration ambassador-at-large and the special adviser to the secretary of state on the newly independent states of the former Soviet Union, is the Council’s George F. Kennan senior fellow for Russian and Eurasian studies. He was interviewed by Bernard Gwertzman, consulting editor of, on May 4, 2005.

What does Bush expect to accomplish is his private meeting with Putin?

This kind of encounter is normally somewhat perfunctory. A number of world leaders will be in Moscow for the anniversary ceremonies, and how much time Putin and Bush will spend together is unclear, although they will have a leisurely dinner at Putin’s dacha outside of Moscow. Administration officials are suggesting that this will be the kind of setting in which the president will have a good opportunity to carry forward some of the discussion that he began at Bratislava in February, beginning with the question of whether Russia is sliding backwards from whatever level of democratic progress it has attained.

In his April 25 state of the union address, Putin claimed democracy was advancing in Russia. A lot of people think it’s just the opposite. What is your evaluation of democracy in Russia?

I’ve learned from reading Putin’s state of the union speeches over the years not to take them to the bank. These are speeches that have rarely been implemented in the way that their repeated statements of democratic and reformist commitments would have made you expect.

I think most Russians believe two things about the state of politics under Putin. One, that it’s not very well understood by foreigners, and that many things are better and others worse than people in the West believe. But the second thing they recognize is that there’s been a massive narrowing of real politics under Putin, a consolidation of authority by him and his circle, a loss of anything resembling democratic pluralism, and no real progress in creating a rule of law. So you talk to most Russians on these issues, and you find them rather despondent. And you talk even to some of Putin’s closest advisers, and they don’t make any bones about this. One of his closest advisers recently told a group of Westerners, “Of course, there’s no independent television in Russia.” He professed to regret this, but he didn’t pretend that there was any reality to the claims that some of Putin’s kept journalists sometimes make, that there is real independence in the Russian broadcast media.

The Russian story that seems to get the most Western press attention is the prosecution of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, one of the leading oligarchs in the Russian oil business. His sentencing has been postponed. What do you think will happen to him?

It is all but universally assumed that the court will find him guilty and that it has no real freedom to do anything other than that. There is a speculation about how long he will have to serve; it’s impossible, really, to guess about the result.

One of the things that the offensive against Yukos [the oil company formerly headed by Khodorkovsky] has let loose is a mad scramble, within the Russian government and even within Putin’s inner circle, over control of the assets of the Russian energy sector. That struggle is still under way. A plan has been put forward to unite the state gas monopoly with Rosneft, one of the biggest oil companies. But this plan has divided members of Putin’s inner circle, who are represented on the boards of these different companies. So they are fighting to maintain their own privileges; the fighting has become so intense that the Russian media report that there’s now some possibility that the government will scrap the whole plan and try to find another way of extending its control in the energy sector. As one very well-informed American businessman told a [Council on Foreign Relations meeting] recently, these days, in Russian state-owned companies, the executives aren’t stripping assets, as he believes they used to do in the [former Russian President Boris] Yeltsin period [1991-99]. They’re merely stealing revenues.

Government officials can be on the boards of these companies?

You bet.

Why has Bush been emphasizing democratic reform in Russia? Is it because of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s interest in this subject?

It’s an unavoidable issue, given the direction of events inside Russia, and given [Bush’s] own very strong affirmation of interest in the issue in his second inaugural address. It’s not possible for him to be interested in democracy everywhere else in the world and not in Russia, so the Russians had to know from the moment they heard the inaugural that this was coming.

The real issue now is how to make that rhetoric practical. I don’t have the answer to the question of whether the administration is pressing the Russians for concrete ideas to demonstrate that progress toward democracy is real. Does it have ideas for symbolizing its own interest in that issue? The president will apparently be meeting with leaders of Russian NGOs [nongovernmental organizations] when he’s in Moscow. That’s a symbol of an interest in the evolution of pluralism. It stops short of meeting with political leaders across the spectrum, but it still is meant to send a message about the importance of civil society and organizations that are not controlled by the state.

In her visit to Moscow last month, Secretary Rice reportedly tried to convince the Russians that it was in their interest to begin to allay some of these anxieties about Russia’s political directions. She is said to have made the argument to them that they’re now one year away from the meeting of the G-8 [Group of Eight] in St. Petersburg. If Russian politics remains as it is, and Western concerns remain as they are, then that meeting is going to have one focus: Why is Russia an outlier in an organization of democracies? Her argument to the Russians has apparently been, “This isn’t in your interest.” And frankly, it isn’t in the interest of the G-8 as an organization, which has other business to preoccupy itself with apart from Russia’s shortfalls.

The Russians seem to be very eager to get into the World Trade Organization [WTO]. Has the European Union [EU] approved their membership?

The Europeans have reached broad agreement with the Russians about the terms of their accession. This was reflected in the Russian-EU summit last year, which involved, among other things, Russia’s agreement to ratify the Kyoto Protocol [on climate change]. But as you know, WTO accession depends on the resolution of countless details and on the agreement of all states.

It’s interesting that of late, although the United States has been a booster of Russian membership in the WTO as a milestone toward integration of the international economy, the Russian-American discussions of this problem have become a little more difficult. The administration had wanted to show that it’s not going to agree to Russian terms simply as a political concession, that there has to be a very convincing performance in dealing with some of the outstanding problems that have blocked accession up to now. In particular, Russia is seen as making no progress in dealing with intellectual property-rights issues. Russia apparently barely avoided being put on a list of bad actors on this issue by the administration and is likely to be on the list the next time the administration has to report to Congress [on the issue]. There are other obstacles- agriculture and financial services- but right now the big sticking point is intellectual property rights. The administration’s position is it needs to see serious implementation of commitments the Russians have already made.

The Russian constitution bars Putin from running for a third term in the 2008 presidential election. What are the chances he might try to get around that?

Putin has periodically said the Russian elections will go forth on the basis of the constitution as it is now written. But his advisers have begun to talk about scenarios under which it would be necessary for him to stay on, and they’ve even talked about the ways in which that could be accomplished.

By making a kind of parliamentary government rather than a presidential one?

That’s one scenario, but the more straightforward mechanism that’s been talked about is simply allowing him to run for a third term as president. This is a delicate political problem for Putin and his people, and he does not want to tip his hand prematurely. What’s more likely is the creation of some kind of movement of Putin’s supporters imploring him to continue to offer the nation his loyal services.

On this trip, Bush is also visiting Latvia and Georgia, both of which are former Soviet republics. That seems to have raised hackles in the Kremlin.

Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, is reported to have lodged a formal objection to the president’s itinerary and is quoted as having said, “If the president goes to Latvia and Georgia, that will just encourage those two governments to think that they can do anything that they want,” by which he presumably means to act as though they’re really independent states. The visit doesn’t sit well with the Russians, since the Baltic states and the Georgians have been among the most assertive of their rights and most interested in integrating into the West. The Baltic states are, of course, in both the EU and NATO, and Georgia has made it clear it wants to follow suit.

The Baltics, of course, have mixed views of the anniversary of the end of World War II.

What they have wanted Moscow to acknowledge is that VE Day was not a victory for them. It was the defeat of fascism, but it continued a Red Army occupation of their territory that had begun during the course of the war. What’s interesting is that the Estonian and Lithuanian presidents are not going to Moscow [for the anniversary observances]. This demand for historical rectification has been echoed by leaders of the EU. For example, Guenter Verheugen, the vice president of the European Commission, said that Russia needs to acknowledge that this was an occupation, that there was no victory for the Baltic states, but, rather, the beginning of life under the Stalinist dictatorship.

That’s an example of what I think is a near-consensus in Europe that the Russians are dodging some historical realities. Most other governments don’t want to punish the Russians for this, but you see also in Eastern Europe a kind of revived nationalist resentment of these issues. It’s paralleled or mirrored on the Russian side, of course, by the attempt to strengthen the legitimacy of the Putin regime on the basis of nationalism. These emotions are, of course, not restricted to Europe- the Chinese and the Japanese are squabbling about the importance of how to acknowledge their historical record. I think of [William] Faulkner, who said, “The past isn’t dead; it isn’t even past.” We’re seeing, whenever you come to a major anniversary of World War II, that that war, in particular, is not past.