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In Putin’s Russia an Uncertain Mix of Hopeful and Troubling Trends - 2003-06-02

Russian President Putin joined France and Germany in protesting the war in Iraq. “Where is Saddam Hussein?” he has asked. “Where are the weapons of mass destruction?”

In posing these questions, President Putin is reflecting Russian public opinion, says Daniel Treisman, associate professor of political science at the University of California in Los Angeles.

“The war in Iraq is definitely on the front burner in the relationship between Russia and the United States,” he says. “Public opinion in Russia is extremely hostile to the U.S. military action. And so this is the political reality that President Putin has to deal with.”

But Professor Treisman adds both sides seem to want to get beyond the war to other issues on which they can agree, in particular the war on terrorism and economic cooperation.

David Satter, author of a new book, Darkness at Dawn: the Rise In the Russian Criminal State, says the St. Petersburg meeting is a good indication of what’s to come:

“There is an attempt at the moment to patch up relations after Russian resistance to the American campaign in Iraq,” he says. “It is my impression that among the Americans there is a feeling that we do not have to worry about France and Germany so much, but we want to reestablish good relations with Russia.”

As President Bush told the French newspaper Le Figaro: “My personal relations with President Putin are so good that I can trust him.”

There are risks involved in closer U.S. relations with Russia, says David Satter. The ally engaged in the war on terrorism is practicing some terrorism of its own in the prolonged war in Chechnya. Mr. Satter says it is creating conditions for still more Islamic extremism of danger to both Russia and America:

“It is very much a mixed picture,” he says. “On the one hand, we seek the help of Russians. But on the other, we indirectly encourage them to pursue policies that may increase the very problem we are seeking their help in solving. Adopting Russia as a full fledged member of the anti-terror coalition may be good in the short run, and it certainly produces some public relations benefits, but we run the risk of blinding ourselves to some of the deeper problems that are afflicting Russia at the moment.”

One of the biggest problems, says Mr. Satter, is the tight control the so-called oligarchs exercise over the Russian economy and to some extent the nation’s political life. This has given rise to the criminal state, he says, despite some efforts to keep the moguls out of politics.

“It is still an oligarchical criminal situation,” he says, “in which people who have achieved wealth through illegal methods dominate the country, monopolize the property and set the tone and the ethical standards for the state. And their methods are certainly imitated all up and down the line in the Russian economy, which is thoroughly criminalized.”

Professor Treisman writes in Foreign Affairs quarterly that President Putin has not been able to tame the oligarchs as he had promised. He may remove one or two who are quickly replaced. If anything, their economic power has grown under his presidency, and they have used it to assert political control of many of Russia’s 89 provinces.

But they are no longer quite so obvious or flamboyant. They are to some extent cleaning up their act, says Professor Treisman, keeping some of their money in Russia instead of sending it abroad and trying to attract foreign investors. They seem to have abandoned their sometimes lethal warfare against one another.

Their huge conglomerates are boosting the economy, says Professor Treisman, while smaller enterprises lag behind.

“Putin may view the oligarchs, at least at the moment, as working toward the economic interests of Russia,” he says. “At the same time, he will continue to want to ensure that they do not play the sort of political role that they were perceived to play under former Soviet President Boris Yeltsin. He wants to be sure that in the political realm he calls the shots.”

Thanks to rapid economic growth in Russia in recent years – due in large part to higher oil prices - President Putin appears to enjoy a popularity that once seemed beyond a rather nondescript former KGB officer hand picked by former President Boris Yeltsin.

He is hardly a politician to enthrall the masses, says Professor Treisman. He is cool, controlled, calculating. He maneuvers skillfully among Moscow’s factions and carefully shapes his rhetoric to public opinion. If nothing else, he stands for stability and perhaps a more hopeful Russian future.

But he has made less progress than his supporters claim, says Professor Treisman. “There are numerous problems in the Russia economy, in the Russian legal system, judicial system, especially in Russian infrastructure,” he says, “which is gradually falling apart. But nevertheless, voters seem to be thankful for the gradual improvement in economic conditions, even if there still is a long way to go to fully recover.”

President Putin has perhaps had the most impact in foreign affairs. As at home, he has proved an adroit balancer abroad. While protesting the U.S. war in Iraq, he has accepted the U.S. withdrawal from the Anti Ballistic Missile treaty, the expansion of NATO and the stationing of U.S. troops in Central Asia.

He knows the Russian future rests considerably on good relations with the United States and the west, says David Satter. That is why he often speaks of western values, which the west likes to hear.

“The Russians have a long tradition of professionalism in international diplomacy to draw on,” he says, “and they also benefit from the desire of the rest of the world to see Russia as benign and not as a country that is potentially unstable. Putin has certainly been able to exploit that tendency in the west. The impression Putin has been able to create in the west has worked to his and Russia’s benefit.”

There is a danger of President Putin appearing too western, says Anders Aslund, author of Building Capitalism: The Transformation of the Former Soviet Bloc.

Mr. Aslund writes in The New York Times newspaper that President Putin is increasingly compared to the hapless former Russian President Mikhail Gorbachev, who was accused of giving too much to the Americans without getting anything in return.

Among the things Moscow would now like in return is repayment of the debt it is owed by Iraq and participation of Russian companies in Iraqi oil ventures. In turn, that may depend on how vigorously Russia pursues nuclear non-proliferation, especially in Iran.