An encounter with Vladimir Putin

On September 5, I was part of a group that had the opportunity to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin in the Kremlin. Some of us met with him l

On September 5, I was part of a group that had the opportunity to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin in the Kremlin. Some of us met with him last year as well. In both cases, it was a far-ranging discussion, covering everything the participants could think of. To sum it up, it was a virtuoso performance. He sat there with only his press aide, who maintained silence throughout the whole session. The meeting as a whole pitted the audience against Putin, with many of us trying to establish "gotcha" points. It is hard to think of many American presidents or Israeli prime ministers who would submit themselves to such an experience, not to mention doing it twice. Putin's attitude toward government stems from his emphasis on stabilization. He judges everything according to whether it provides stabilization. Putin insists that this is the best strategy to follow after the turbulent years of the late Gorbachev and Yeltsin eras. The Yeltsin years in particular ceded too much power to the regional governors and too much property and wealth to the oligarchs. In Putin's mind the first priority was to recentralize power in the Kremlin, both politically and economically. For that reason, he justifies the abolition of the elections for governor and increasing the minimum number of votes needed to qualify for political party status in the Duma from 5 percent to 7% of the votes cast. In the same way, he would argue that it was necessary to eliminate oligarchic control of the media. As he saw it, the oligarchs were using the media to fight their own commercial and personal battles. It was also necessary to reassert government control of the country's strategic assets, particularly its energy resources. As he put it last year, most countries of the world have state control of their energy resources. So what is wrong if Russia does the same? The US is one of the few countries that do not. IT WAS also in the name of stabilization that he firmly insisted he would not run for a third term in 2008. He said that to do so would require a change in the constitution which would be destabilizing. He pointed to Ukraine, which had three changes in its constitution, which he said was destabilizing. In his mind, what led to the Rose Revolution in Georgia and the Orange Revolution in Ukraine was that the governments were unstable, the economies were producing far below their potential, which led to economic unrest, and also there was too much corruption. He noted in passing that there was a strong feeling in Russia that the revolutionary unrest in parts of the Commonwealth of Independent States was provoked and stimulated by Western, including American, financial support for such efforts. He did not attribute such motivation to "George." (Last year it was "George Bush"; this year it was just "George.") But he did feel that in particular the non-governmental organizations that were promoting democratic participation were funded almost exclusively by Western foundations and governments. This made him suspicious of their motives. On the question of Yukos, he said mistakenly that Yukos's oil production was increasing. He also responded to the question about whether other potential businesses would come under attack by pointing out that the oligarchs had made their money in such a short time that none could have done it honestly, implying that sooner or later there would be more to come. When asked if he was not creating a new oligarchic class from the ranks of the siloviki in the Kremlin who were appointing themselves to positions in these new state petroleum and metals companies, he responded "no." He said these individuals were chosen to represent the state and vote the stock the state owned in such companies. He said these individuals did not receive a salary or dividends for that purpose. (That is hard to believe and it will be important to see if that will be the case in five years.) Suggesting however that he felt somewhat uncomfortable with that arrangement, he indicated that the government was considering the selection of "public interest" representatives who could serve on those boards instead. In a sense, these would be outsiders from the academic or public service sectors. He added however that so far they were having difficulty finding such individuals. On the whole, it was a masterful performance. It was fascinating to see somebody with such wide-ranging command although not always completely accurate and with a different definition of democracy and market competition but one who enjoyed the "give and take" and who commented that he had agreed to do it again this year because he enjoyed the interchange the previous year. Another interpretation is that he welcomed such give and take because those around him are too intimidated or have too much at stake to do the same. The writer is Kathryn W. Davis Professor of Soviet Economics, Emeritus, at Wellesley College and the associate director of the Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies at Harvard University; he is the author of The Piratization of Russia: Russian Reform Goes Awry.