I hear the unthinkable

An interview with Nikolai Zlobin of the US Center of Defense Information, one of the Western political scientists specializing in Russia who met with President Vladimir Putin last week.

Question: I hear the unthinkable… that you literally forced a confession from Putin at the meeting…

Nikolai Zlobin: When I got a chance to ask questions at the meeting, I said I was interested in the situation in 2008. There is widespread opinion in Russia that it is going to be a major political milestone in the history of the country and that it may even foment a grave political crisis. A great deal is being said and written on the subject. Political scientists close to the Kremlin (or the ones considered close to it) imply again and again that a faction that is running the country nowadays does not contemplate stepping down. That these men are looking for ways and means to legalize their continued stay in the Kremlin. That’s what I told the president…

“All right,” he said. “What’s the question?” I asked if he intended to run for president in 2008, and amend the Constitution suitably. He gave me a shrewd look and asked, “Is that a wish?” – “You are putting me in a difficult position…” – “No, it’s just a question.” – “Vladimir Vladimirovich, I ask questions here. Just a brief yes or no.”

A lot of my colleagues told me afterwards that this was not the proper manner for talking to presidents. By the way, he never got mad at any question. On the contrary, he turned on all his charm and charisma. He did charm us, I’m telling you. No wonder. He is a professional.

Putin said, “I’m telling you again that I’m not going to run for president again or amend the Constitution.” “As for the team in the corridors of power nowadays, the team that wants to remain,” he said, “let it if that’s what it wants. There is no way of forbidding it. This is a democracy, after all.”

Question: What is your estimate of his words?

Nikolai Zlobin: As I see it, these two “NO’s” in his part change everything in Russian political life. Moreover, he gave his answer in the presence of three dozen Western political scientists specializing in Russia. Moreover, the political scientists who form public opinion in their respective countries. Breaking these promises will be the end of his political career in the West. It will ruin the image he toiled so hard to form these last six years, and Putin knows it. That is why I believe that I accomplished a lot at this meeting, even if I’m saying so myself. You know, I had asked the same question of Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov that same morning and he said that he would not run for president in 2008. That’s how inside of twenty-four hours I withdrew two major political figures from the 2008 presidential race…

Question: I.e. you decapitated Russia for years to come, right? Who, if not one of these two?

Nikolai Zlobin: I deliberately refrained from asking Putin about successors. Three years in advance, it would have been wrong. He himself may not know the name yet. Even if he does… Just imagine what would have happened had he revealed the name. The man would have found himself under fire the very next day. He would have never forgiven me with a laugh.

Seriously, I plan to ask it of Putin in another year. If we are called again, of course.

Question: Do you think the president meant it?

Nikolai Zlobin: I hate to think I was tricked. Not only I, you understand. Too many will be tricked… I think he meant it.

Question: You said it: Putin is leaving but his team stays on to fight. The situation in Russia being what it is its chances of success are not what I call slim. So, what was the question you got an answer to? Concerning Mr. Putin who wants out or whether the team and the policy in Russia are to be changed in 2008?

Nikolai Zlobin: If Putin stays on after 2008, it will be the end of democracy in Russia. If he steps down regardless of what will follow, it will be a step aimed at development of democracy. From a long-term, point of view, of course. No matter who succeeds.

As for Putin’s team, (…) there are two views on that. View One: Putin is a strong president and man who chose himself a team of nobodies and controls it nowadays. View Two: Putin is not a leader at all, he is but a puppet in the hands of either the so called Family or his own team. I do not really know how things are.

All the same, I lean to the opinion that there can be no Putin’s team without Putin himself. Withdraw him, and the team will find remaining in the corridors of power very difficult indeed. This is my personal opinion, of course.

Question: You met with Putin last year, in the wake of the Beslan tragedy, and you told me you had had the impression that Putin was in political solitude but did not fear it in the least. Has this meeting changed anything in your perception?

Nikolai Zlobin: As I see it, he remains unafraid of political solitude. There is a new nuance, however. I’d say that Putin is not afraid of his political future now. The impression is that he has made some sort of decision. Perhaps, it even enabled him to retain control over his team. That is why he seems a stronger president now than he was a year ago. From this point of view, he may even be less alone nowadays. At the same time, they all fear him and he… he despises them all. At the very least, they do not have his respect. I’m absolutely convinced of it.

Question: Putin proclaimed abolition of gubernatorial elections and elections in single-mandate districts a week after your meeting a week ago. Everybody took it as a step away from democracy. What steps shall we expect nowadays?

Nikolai Zlobin: There is no connection between the president’s meeting with the leading Western experts on Russia and abolition of gubernatorial elections – or with any other steps away from democracy with a laugh.

Will there be any steps now? Sure. Putin himself hinted it. He was asked a question about New Orleans. He said that municipal services could not operate when the municipality itself was in ruins. That administrative collapse followed. Control from the center was the only solution, he said, “I do not know what conclusions the Americans will draw but we have already drawn the conclusion,” he said.

As I see it, in other words, the Kremlin is convinced that the more it controls, the more efficient the solution to local problems is. As a result, the federal center and Putin himself bit off more than they can chew.

Question: The Kremlin is besieged by fears nowadays – the fear of disintegration of Russia, of an orange revolution, extremists a.k.a. Limonov’s men, skinheads, etc. Do you get the impression that the authorities are becoming paranoid?

Nikolai Zlobin: I’d call it political paranoia the authorities mistake for political reality. The authorities are even too insecure to be aware of the necessity of the opposition.

Perhaps, they even feel that they are doing something wrong… In fact, the president does not even have anybody on an equal footing to talk to. There is no use talking to the elite. All it thinks about is how whatever its betters say may be converted into new benefits. I’d say that this is why Putin is more open to Western experts.

Question: What if you are just being used? Say, with the purpose of forming a proper image in the eyes of the international community?

Nikolai Zlobin: We are. The Kremlin is even successful to some extent. But that’s an inevitable evil. It would have been much worse to do nothing and leave us completely in the dark – just like Russian political scientists and journalists who are forced to operate on the basis of rumors and innuendo because of the closeness of the Kremlin. But this use is a two-way street. How much longer would you have wondered about Putin’s plans for 2008, were it not possible for us to ask questions like that?

Question: But this was not the first time Putin answered questions like that…

Nikolai Zlobin: Yes, but he was always very evasive. This was the first time he gave a decisive “No”.

Question: How many times will he have to answer it yet?

Nikolai Zlobin: Well, his “No” should be converted into political reality. Everybody from the president himself to his inner circle to society must know that there can be no turning back. If you ask me, he must not be asked the same question ever again. We all should put an end to it, “We believe that you will not run for president in 2008, or amend the Constitution. End of the matter.”