Russian President Vladimir Putin announced recently that he plans to remain influential in his country, even after the end of his second term of office, which ends in 2008. Igor Zevelev, Washington bureau chief of Novosti, the Russian News and Information Agency, says his declaration came as no surprise to Russians. Russia plays an increasingly important economic and political role on the world stage, but its earlier democratic reforms seem to have eroded under President Putin.
Speaking with host Judith Latham of VOA News Now’s International Press Club, Igor Zevelev says the real question is in what capacity President Putin will be influential. Mr. Zevelev says a number of possibilities have been proposed – as Prime Minister, as president of a new union of Belarus and Russia, as leader of the United Russia political party, as chairman of Gazprom, the Russian gas corporation, or even as head of the Constitutional Court. But whatever his political future holds, President Putin is quite popular in Russia with a 77 % approval rating.
However, the West is critical of Mr. Putin in a number of areas – his recent restrictions on nongovernmental organizations, his rollback of press freedom, and the questionable circumstances under which a highly respected investigative journalist critical of the Kremlin died. Igor Zevelev calls the killing of Anna Politkovskaya a “great tragedy,” but he says he thinks the Kremlin was probably not responsible for her death because “such a contract killing” would draw a lot of attention to the state of human rights in Russia. Furthermore, he says, Russians attribute greater value to “stability” and “economic prosperity” than to democracy. Although relations between Washington and the Kremlin were warm during President Bush’s first term, Mr. Zevelev says, they have cooled lately, partly because of differences over dealing with Tehran’s nuclear ambition and Russia’s role as an energy supplier to Iran.
In contrast, Matthias Rueb, Washington bureau chief of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, says, Germany does not fear Russia’s power as a major energy supplier to Europe. He reminds that former Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder sits on the board of the company that is supposed to build a pipeline through the Baltic Sea connecting Russia and Western Europe. And Mr. Schroeder wrote in his newly published autobiography that it’s a “good thing” for Europe, and especially for Germany, to have Russia as a new superpower than can serve as a “counterweight” to the United States. This week Russia’s Foreign Ministry sharply criticized a U.S. State Department official for warning Germany that the Baltic Sea pipeline will further increase its dependence on Russia.
Igor Zevelev notes there are other major areas of contention with the West, especially Moscow’s troubled relations with Georgia over the disputed regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Georgian journalist Zachary Kiknadze says the Kremlin is supporting these two separatist regions, which Russia denies, while Washington leans toward the government in Tbilisi. This week Gazprom announced it would more than double the price of gas supplies to Georgia, a move reminiscent of last year’s price dispute with Ukraine, whose government is also Westward leaning.
Despite their policy differences, Igor Zevelev says, there are still many areas where Russia and the United States can – and should – cooperate, including counter-terrorism and preventing the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.
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