Russian Expert Warns of ‘Disturbing Trend’ in Kremlin

March 1, 2004 6:21 pm (EST)

To help readers better understand the nuances of foreign policy, CFR staff writers and Consulting Editor Bernard Gwertzman conduct in-depth interviews with a wide range of international experts, as well as newsmakers.

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James M. Goldgeier, who served in the National Security Council and State Department during the Clinton administration, says that President Vladimir Putin is riding high in Russia, thanks to stability and steady prices for oil. Putin faces no credible opposition in March 14 presidential vote.

But Goldgeier, who is director of the Institute for European, Russian, and Eurasian Studies at George Washington University and an adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, says “a disturbing trend in Russia is that you see a president with a KGB background who has sought greater and greater control over politics.” The signs of Putin’s growing authoritarianism, he says, include the lack of competitive elections and the disappearance of independent media.

He was interviewed by Bernard Gwertzman, consulting editor for, on March 1, 2004.

With Russian President Vladimir Putin running for re-election on March 14 without any real opposition, how would you judge his record as president over the past four years?

In terms of public approval, his standing in Russia is quite high. It has been high since he took office in 2000 and has remained high. Of course, the Russian population doesn’t really have much of a choice right now. So it’s possible that the popularity ratings are inflated. I think they are high for two reasons. One, there is a sense now that the country is stable, in a way it was not during much of the [President Boris] Yeltsin period [1991-99].

And second, the economy has been growing. And we all know that voters like to see a growing economy. And on that front, mainly, Putin has been blessed with high oil prices.

Has oil been a principal driver of the economy?

Yes. [Because of oil revenue, the government has] been able to pay the debt. It’s avoided having to get the kind of Western assistance packages Russia got in the immediate post-Soviet period. Oil represents a way for the Russian government to collect money in a way it couldn’t before. It is able to fund its budget. And the high prices paid for Russian oil have contributed much to Putin’s approval ratings. I think that’s a large part of his success. The negative is that it means the Russians have not had to go forward with economic reform, because the pressure is just not there. They can rely on the higher oil prices.

What kind of reform are you referring to?

Continued reform of the economy toward enterprises that are internationally competitive. You know, Russia should be a country that has sectors of the economy that are internationally competitive and producing internationally competitive goods. If all you have to do is sell oil, you don’t really have to worry about the rest.

Russian industry, in other words, is not yet on the Western level?

No. And it’s not going to be because there is no real impetus for it. Even in the oil sector, we saw— with the example of Yukos Oil— the arrest of the CEO, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, and the effort by the power ministries to muscle in on some economic reforms. You are not seeing major reform coming from those folks, but again, all they have to do is sell oil.

Talk about Khodorkovsky. No single issue has generated more criticism of Putin in the United States. Why, in your opinion, was he arrested?

The standard official line is that he wasn’t paying his taxes and that’s why he was thrown into jail. There wasn’t going to be much sympathy for him from the population, given that he was one of these folks from the mid-90s who was basically able to get a lot of Russia’s resources for very little. There was plenty of discussion of bad behavior in the mid-90s.

All these guys were seen as corrupt and not playing by the rules and so on. But Khodorkovsky had recently become more of a Western businessman type. His company had been seen as one that was operating more on Western transparency norms and was starting to be run as you would expect a Western business to be run. He had become a major funder of civil society in Russia. He had become a major supporter of political opposition parties in Russia. He had become someone who was no longer secret about possible future political ambitions such as possibly wanting to run for president some day. So he was thrown in jail, shortly before last December’s parliamentary [Duma] elections.

I think the disturbing trend in Russia is that you see a president with a KGB background who has sought greater and greater control over politics. There is very little opposition coming from media. You don’t have a free media in Russia in the way you did in the 1990s. Whatever Yeltsin’s flaws, remember, people said whatever they wanted about him. You can’t do that now. You don’t have the opportunity to have truly competitive elections. You are seeing a presidential race in which the only drama basically is the voter turnout.

A potential opposition figure like Khodorkovsky is thrown in jail. The veteran cabinet of Mikhail Kasyanov is thrown out just before the election, and Mikhail Fradkov [the Russian representative to the European Union, with a background in tax policy], a guy who is not very well-known, is named as the new prime minister. It looks like a president who is consolidating authority in the old style, the old way.

Do you think Khodorkovsky will be freed after the elections?

That’s a very good question. I think most people close to this have argued that we really won’t know what the Khodorkovsky affair means until after the election. Is he just one person that Putin was going after or we will see more of these? And the conventional wisdom is that we won’t know until then, that Putin won’t do any more of this until after the election. What we will be looking for after the election is not just how he deals with Khodorkovsky but whether there are any more of these figures that he will go after in the effort to establish further control.

Why did Putin fire his Cabinet last week?

Kasyanov had been publicly expressing opposition to the whole effort surrounding Khodorkovsky. I think that what Putin is doing is making clear that the new government after March 14 will be his government and will not have any ties to the previous regime. Kasyanov had been Yeltsin’s finance minister. It is the final move by Vladimir Putin in establishing his complete authority in the Russian political space.

Putin cannot run for re-election in 2008, correct?

That’s correct. This will be his last term.

Who will be the next candidate? Or candidates?

If you recall, in the past election, in 2000, Yeltsin basically named Putin as his successor by resigning on December 31, 1999 and naming Putin to succeed him in advance of the March 2000 election. So the question for the ’08 election will be: Are we just going to have somebody who is anointed by President Putin or will we have a real election? There have been concerns that Putin would seek to amend the constitution so that he can run again, or his term would be extended, but so far he has not shown an inclination to do that, fortunately.

The White House has issued some statements critical of Putin but they have not gotten much attention. Were those pro forma statements?

Yes. The Khodorkovsky jailing got the White House’s attention in a way that most other issues had not previously. You have to remember that this was a group of people who in the 2000 campaign were not much interested in Russian internal issues, but there were two issues that were too easy not to criticize the Clinton-Gore team on. These were Chechnya and corruption. The Bush people said they were going to do more about them. There was also a third issue— Russian sales of technology to Iran. They were going to sanction Russia for that.

Of course, since the Bush administration came in, and especially since September 11, when the main issue was whether the Russians would help out on the war against terror, the Bush administration has had zero interest in criticizing Putin directly for what’s going on. The United States ambassador to Russia, Alexander Vershbow, has been critical throughout. It seems as if the administration is pleased to let Vershbow speak criticially about things like Russian behavior in Chechnya. There hasn’t been much backup from Washington.

I would almost expect Bush to be sympathetic to Putin on Chechnya, given Afghanistan and Muslim terrorists.

Clinton was very sympathetic, just on the grounds that it was internal, only in Russia. And there has always been the issue of lack of U.S. leverage on an issue like that. However, the fact is that the Russians have gone in and carried out a lot of indiscriminate violence, and the Russian military has committed huge violations of human rights against civilians, women, and children. If Russia is going to be a European country, this is not the way that European countries are supposed to act.

With the Khodorkovsky jailing, you started to see more concern. Questions were being asked: Where’s Russia heading? What does this mean for the future? But it is still very modest. If Putin does what this administration wants in dealing with the war on terrorism, which is mainly intelligence sharing, and raises no [objections to] U.S. bases in [former Soviet republics in] Central Asia, I don’t think the Bush administration will really care about the rest.

Bush, of course, went out of his way to establish, publicly at least, a warm, friendly relationship with Putin. Is that genuine? Or is there some other purpose?

It would appear to be genuine. And again if you look back at Bush in the 2000 campaign, the message coming from people like [now National Security Adviser] Condoleezza Rice was that Clinton embraced Yeltsin and over-personalized the relationship: “We’re not going to fall for that sort of thing.” Well, the first meeting between Bush and Putin in the summer of 2001 in Slovenia included the famous comments from Bush, who said, in effect, “I’ve looked into his eyes, and seen his soul, and I liked what I saw.” I think he fell for the guy completely, and by all accounts the president values personal relationships, and they did seem to hit it off and they’ve gotten along quite swimmingly ever since.

Assuming Putin wins very big on March 14, is there any prescription you might have for the United States down the road with Russia?

The fundamental fact is that there is very little substance in United States-Russia relations. If you think back to the big issues of the 90s— NATO and Russia, arms control, Western assistance— these are all gone. [Regarding relations between] NATO and Russia, we’re not looking for anything big. Arms control is basically done. Western assistance is no longer an issue.

What about Iraq?

The Russians are involved to the extent that the United States is trying to get a major international package on debt relief, and the Russians will try to get some contracts. I don’t think there’s any huge amount the United States is looking for from Russia. The one substantive issue in the relationship remains the Russian ties to Iran and the support of the Iranian nuclear program. This has been an issue since the mid-1990s, and neither the Clinton nor the Bush administration has had any success in getting the Russians to move much in their relations with Iran.

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