Conversations with Putin: an interview with analyst Nikolai Zlobin

President Putin recently met with the Valdai Club, a group of foreign political scientists – the latest in a series of such interviews. One of the experts present was Nikolai Zlobin, director of the Russia and Eurasia Project at the World Security Institute, Washington.

Nikolai Zlobin, political analyst and regular contributor to this newspaper, turned up at our office for an interview a year ago bearing a remarkable note written by President Vladimir Putin. In effect, it was a note that shook Russia’s political elite. There, in Putin’s own handwriting, was an answer to Zlobin’s question: Putin will not seek a third term under any circumstances.

Zlobin then visited the grave of his friend Yuri Shchekochikhin at the Peredelkinskoe cemetery, and returned to the United States. This year, Zlobin was once again among the foreign political scientists invited to meet with Putin at his Novo-Ogarevo residence. Before the group discussion, he had a personal conversation with Putin.

Question: When you last met with Vladimir Putin, he gave you a note saying that he will not seek a third germ. This time, as far as we know, he reconfirmed that intention. But in terms of democracy, how acceptable is it to talk of a successor? Russia isn’t a monarchy, after al.

Nikolai Zlobin: I think that all the talk of a successor is evidence of the tremendous PR reserves invested in Vladimir Putin’s image, as well as the miserably low level of Russia’s political culture and system. Russia’s political reality is characterized by an absence of competition. Elections are approaching, and the people fear that they might be tricked by political adventurers, criminal groups, or corrupt official circles. But there is President Putin, who is generally regarded as belonging to none of those three categories. The figure of Vladimir Putin is used as a reality check: according to various calculations, up to 60% of Russian citizens are prepared to vote for whichever candidate he indicates.

Question: Is there no alternative?

Nikolai Zlobin: No, there isn’t. And the flawed political reality has largely been caused by Putin himself. I should point out that the situation is dangerous for Putin himself: it’s hard for him to work out if there is a worthy successor – whether a person will be able to withstand blows once he no longer has Putin standing behind him. In this situation, both Russian society and Vladimir Putin lose out.

Question: Do you get the impression that the president is starting to sum up the results of his period in office?

Nikolai Zlobin: Yes, the meeting did leave me with that impression. I have attended three meetings with Vladimir Putin. Over the years, I have seen three different presidents. The first one – straight after the Beslan school hostage siege – was subdued and at a loss. It was clear that he’d suffered a heavy blow. Last year, we saw a Putin who knows what he wants and is prepared to use any means to achieve his ends. He controls everything in Russia, and if there’s anything that he doesn’t control, he’s capable of taking control of it. A year ago, Putin looked like a person standing outside the elite. The elite fears his unpredictability, and I think Putin openly despises the elite – he’s using it. An example of that is what happened to Dmitri Rogozin and the Motherland (Rodina) party.

Question: And what kind of Putin did you see this year?

Nikolai Zlobin: This time, he was clearly thinking about what has happened in Russia during his period in office – drawing up some preliminary results. It so happened that I was sitting next to Putin at lunch, so we spoke for half an hour before the group discussion. I said that he gives the impression of being someone who doesn’t behave like a politician: he doesn’t bring any notes or consultants into his meetings with us, and he answers all questions. Politicians tend to fear that they’ll be held accountable for anything they say. Putin answered that he isn’t a politician – he’s a citizen who has become the president of Russia. I asked him what the difference was. He answered: “A politician is someone who studies politics, makes a political career, and depends on parties. I’m not a politician. I haven’t held any other elected office, I’ve never belonged to any party except the CPSU, I’ve never participated in politics or made a career of it.” I objected, pointing out that he is surrounded by people who are making a political career. “Yes,” he said, “I know, it isn’t easy – we have a different mindset.”

Subsequently, during the group meeting, whenever the president used the word “political” it sounded almost like a term of abuse. Vladimir Putin is starting to think of himself in more fundamental concepts than political successes or failures: good and evil, justice and injustice. I might have misunderstood him, but I think he’s trying to make his peace with himself – to convince himself that he’s been good for Russia. This is consistent with the old Russian idea that power is good. At any rate, he said that he’s made many decisions in the full knowledge that a normal politician wouldn’t do that. But he said that since he has never had a political career, he can permit himself to do such things, in the hope that the people will someday understand.

It seemed to me that the political struggle isn’t all that important to him right now (although he controls every centimeter of the political arena). He’s trying to understand the Vladimir Putin phenomenon. On previous occasions, I didn’t hear him say things like “I’ve never thought about that.” Now he’s saying “I recently came to understand that…” or “I’m starting to realize the importance of…” This is a departure from the image of a politician with a righteous gleam in his eye.

Question: Putin admits that he hasn’t managed to stamp out corruption, overcome poverty, or facilitate the creation of a multi-party system. So what has he been doing for the past two years?

Nikolai Zlobin: Vladimir Putin was asked what he has achieved during his period in office. He replied that Russia used to have 40% of its citizens living below the poverty line, but now the figure is only 20%, and he’s proud of that result. He said that the economic situation is better than it was two yeas ago. Paying off Russia’s foreign debt was very important for him, in terms of self-respect. Russia has become capable of defending its interests. When asked what he hasn’t managed to do, Putin spoke of those 20% still living in poverty, as well as stamping out corruption and demographic problems. He said that he will advise his successor to pay attention to forming a multi-party political system, “improving” relations between the regions and the federal government, and developing local government.

Question: What do you think we should make of his unexpected criticism of the “sovereign democracy” concept? What is this – a change of reference-points?

Nikolai Zlobin: Putin said that talk of “sovereign democracy” is “not a harmful thing.” He didn’t condemn political analysts who use the term: there’s a debate about it, so let the debate continue. I think his answer was slightly Jesuitical. He wanted to show that he’s a tolerant and open person, not dogmatic. By the way, last year he publicly rejected “managed democracy” – and no one has used that term since.

Question: And what does he think of the role of the people from a security and law enforcement background (siloviki) who are heading Russia’s largest oil companies?

Nikolai Zlobin: He said that it’s normal – but I don’t think anyone present, except the intepreters, took these words seriously. Putin said that Igor Sechin, deputy head of the presidential administration, represents the interests of the state in the Rosneft oil company, and that this is “the only way to overcome corruption.” On the contrary, I think this is a classic example of corruption. It was one of Putin’s weakest answers. The number of these “advisors” from the Kremlin is increasing. Why are these people being sent into the leading corporations, rather than working to improve loss-making companies? Actually, this was the third year in a row that we asked Putin about the siloviki-oligarchs, but we still haven’t received a coherent answer.

Question: Who are Russia’s friends these days, in President Putin’s opinion? Who are its enemies? Or does Russia have neither friends nor enemies, only interests?

Nikolai Zlobin: According to Vladimir Putin, Russia isn’t fighting anyone or acting for anyone – it’s defending its own interests. These interests largely determine who’s a friend and who’s an enemy. The president’s position can be illustrated by his answer to the following question: “Your policy isn’t anti-American, but the Russian media portray America as Russia’s chief enemy. Where’s the logic in that?” His answer was very curious. The president said that television shows what people want to see. On the other hand, he added: “Television is interested in what’s happening right now, but I’m thinking of the future, so I’m disappointed when our Western friends make judgements about my position based on Russian television broadcasts.” Putin said that he is friends with President George W. Bush, but let slip that “this relationship has come to play an even more important role than it used to.” I think this is indirect evidence that the level of Russian-American relations has dropped to an almost-critical low, and there’s nothing left besides the Putin-Bush friendship.

Question: What do you see as the explanation for Vladimir Putin’s gesture in the direction of Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko?

Nikolai Zlobin: That was one of the most interesting moments. No one had asked him about Yushchenko. We were talking of Russian gas deliveries to Europe via Ukraine. And Putin suddenly said that Yushchenko had “behaved like an exceptionally wise and far-sighted politician.” I think Putin considered it important to show that the gas saga is purely a pragmatic matter, not driven by any personal dislike for Yushchenko.

But the Kremlin greatly distrusts the Ukrainian elite. The Kremlin doesn’t believe that Ukraine can be a reliable strategic partner regardless of who is at the helm. What’s more, with Viktor Yanukovych’s return to power, Ukrainian politics has done a 180-degree turnaround. The industrially-developed eastern regions of Ukraine are in favor of a political union with Russia, while obstructing economic union. The reason is that the enterprises of Eastern Ukraine don’t want to compete with Russian companies. But Western Ukraine, which is anti-Russian, isn’t at all opposed to economic cooperation.

When relations between Ukraine and Russia became multi-layered, it turned out that Yushchenko isn’t so bad after all – and reality is somewhat different from what the Kremlin’s political analysts describe.

Question: Finally, tell us about the Valdai Club. Isn’t this some sort of Russophile lobby group, telling the Western establishment that the situation in Russia isn’t that bad?

Nikolai Zlobin: The organizers of this forum have a lot of freedom of choice in selecting the participants. The backbone is made up of well-known individuals whose professionalism is undisputed. It’s not a Russophile club at all. If the Kremlin set itself any propaganda objectives in inviting us, they have not been fulfilled – after all, we can ask any question and discuss any issue. I said to President Putin that neither President Bush nor any other leader would have met with us like this. Putin replied that Bush would probably be able to handle it, but he has bad advisors. Of course, there is a certain element of propaganda in this forum, as in any other political event, but it seems to me that the main aim of the organizers is to show that Russia is more multi-layered than it’s usually perceived to be in the West. By the way, this was the first meeting to include a representative of China. I’m prepared to admit that the Valdai Club took a big step backward this year: we refrained from asking a number of tough questions – such as questions about the Kondopoga events or the reprivatization of Rosneft. Vladimir Putin was even a bit bored.

Question: Why didn’t you ask those questions?

Nikolai Zlobin: First of all, they gave us plenty to eat and drink. Secondly, before the forum we were taken to Khanty-Mansiisk. The visit made a strong impression. A representative of Canada who injured his foot ended up in a local hospital, and came out saying that the level of healthcare in Canada is substantially inferior to the level in Khanty-Mansiisk. But next year we’ll certainly ask about the forthcoming elections and other issues. Actually, here’s a curious point: Vladimir Putin admitted that the success of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization has come as a surprise to him. According to Putin, he didn’t suspect that it would develop from a working group on regulating border disputes between Russia and China into a substantial regional organization. I think this is a good illustration of the improvisation principle that dominates Russian politics.

Previous articleA SUCCESSOR IN A SKIRT