Among those Russia specialists who say President Putin is rolling back liberal economic and political reforms ushered in by his predecessor in the1990’s are the authors of a new book, Kremlin Rising: Vladimir Putin’s Russia and the End of Revolution. Authors Peter Baker and Susan Glasser were Moscow bureau chiefs for the Washington Post from January 2001 to November 2004, and they shared their observations on how President Putin has consolidated his grip on the Kremlin with Press Conference USA host Carol Castiel and VOA senior diplomatic correspondent and former Moscow correspondent Andre de Nesnera.
Peter Baker and Susan Glasser said that people in the Kremlin began a campaign in 1999 to find a successor to Russia’s ailing President Boris Yeltsin, which they later called “Project Putin.” And they discovered a little known former KGB colonel, Vladimir Putin, whom they decided to “create” as a major political figure through state television and the power of the state. As Prime Minister under President Boris Yeltsin, Vladimir Putin waged war in Chechnya, positioning himself as a popular figure who would later assume the Russian presidency from Yeltsin. Today, Peter Baker says President Putin has virtually become the head of a one-party state. Susan Glasser described him as obsessed with the power of television, realizing that it is the only means of political communication that matters in modern-day Russia.
The authors chronicled how President Putin managed to control state television during the sinking of the Kursk in 2000, the Moscow theater siege of 2002, and the slaughter of the school children in Beslan in 2004. On the political front, according to Peter Baker, President Putin arranged to have his seven “super-governors” take command from Russia’s regional governors, and last year he used the Beslan massacre as an excuse to eliminate the election of the governors on the pretext of “fighting terrorism.” Susan Glasser said that, as Moscow correspondents, she and Peter Baker witnessed the gradual disappearance of public opposition to President Putin and she explained that ordinary Russians view politics as an area over which they have no control. On the economic front, Peter Baker noted, the Kremlin has realized that it only needs “to jail a couple of wealthy oligarchs” to make the rest fall in line so it can pursue its own brand of a “state-controlled capitalism.” And the term “democracy” in Russia, according to the authors of Kremlin Rising, has come to mean disorder and economic dislocation.
Susan Glasser said that President’s Putin’s aim has been to end the revolution in the former Soviet Union, not to start a new one. She suggested that one can look at everything that has happened in the past five years as the Kremlin’s effort to prevent the kind of street uprisings in Russia that have taken place in the former Soviet republics of Ukraine, Georgia, and Kyrgyzstan. Susan Glasser suggested that the Kremlin has done an excellent job of selling Vladimir Putin to the Russian people. According to her, the revolutions in the former Soviet republics are quite unpopular with Russians themselves, who view them as an “insult” to Russia.
In President Putin’s state-of-the-union speech on April 25th, he said that the collapse of the Soviet Union represented the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century.” And Peter Baker believes that the Russian president’s own words “end up revealing himself,” despite his lip service to democracy. Mr. Baker reminded that President Putin has always tried to sell his war in Chechnya as an extension of Russia’s battle against terrorism by Islamic extremists. And he suggested that U.S. officials bought into that theory, especially after 9/11, and they still have trouble making a compelling case against the Kremlin’s campaign to roll back democratic reform. At the same time, President Bush has said that he wants to make the spread of democracy around the world his primary focus. But Peter Baker said that Russia is the one place in the world where “you could argue that it has actually gone backwards” in the last four years.
Kremlin Rising: Vladimir Putin’s Russia and the End of Revolution by Peter Baker and Susan Glasser will be published in June.
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