Donald Jensen, Director RFE/RL Communications Division, was interviewed by journal Russkii vopros on Russian President Vladimir Putin.
I would like to answer it in a number of parts. First, what is Putin’s position? Putin’s position can be measured in two ways. One is the popularity with the voters. In that sense he is very strong. But you can also measure his popularity with other Russian elites. In that sense, he is strong, but not nearly as strong as he is with the voters. In particular I would say that within the past six months there has been noticeable increase of dissatisfaction with Putin among some Russian elites. The question then is, what happens when the elections come next year and what will happen with his second term. I would say Putin is virtually guaranteed reelection. But that only addresses point number one, which is the popular support. Point number two, which he also has to keep in mind, is the need to bolster his support among the Russian elites. And that I think is what troubles him, because if he does that he must do things which would be seen as antireform. Thus, to some extent these political challenges are contradictory. So you will see that lot of experts like Lilia Shevtsova talk about the elections as giving Putin to break out of this situation by giving him a mandate for reform. I am very doubtful the elections would do that, because the Russian public is very passive – unlike in Gorbachev’s time – so they will not much pressure on the system. I don’t think it will change in the next few years.
You mentioned that Russian elites can undermine President Putin’s position, and that there are already certain signs of this. Can you be more specific on this? What is current relationship between Putin and Russian oligarchs?
Putin’s power comes only to a minor extent from the fact that he was elected. It also comes from the fact that most of the power centers agree that he should be president - federal bureaucracy, the oligarchs, regional governors and so forth. In that sense he balances all the elements. Now what you see in the last months is very, very surprising. Just to say, people have openly talked about a coup, they talked about Khodorkovsky running for president, and that shows that this is not a stable system, a stable leadership system, as it seemed only a year ago, when we always talked about Putin’s power. Comparing the situation to Yeltsin – when Yeltsin started to get sick in 1995, when it was declared publicly, his power in Russia started to suddenly decline, since it was to a significant extent personal. So if Putin is perceived as weak, or that his power is fading away, then it’s very dangerous for him. I don’t think it’s by any means automatic that he gets to fully serve his second term even if he is reelected.
Thus, Putin’s power is limited, because he has to bargain with these groups, even while he retains their support as an arbiter. There are some areas, where he can exert his powers, like some parts of foreign policy. There are other areas, where there are other powerful actors and other people’s interests that are behind certain things. That’s what he always has to keep in mind.
As for the relationship between Putin and the oligarchs – Putin promised to keep them at an equal distance, to reduce their influence over the government. But it hasn’t happened. He got Gusinski and Berezovski out of the country, but there are other oligarchs as well, some of whom he needs to govern. What you saw in the last week or so was talk about an oligarch coup in Russia. The papers say that the oligarchs are basically unhappy with domestic policy situation, and would consider prime ministerial system, like the Czechs have. And that’s because a) the system doesn’t reflect their interests; b) they are running out of things to privatize and running out of money; and c) there is debate between those who have a stake in state economy and those who are oligarchs in privatized industries. There is a serious potential conflict there.
It is important that Putin appears to be strong. The measure is not just Putin being reelected for his second term, the measure is balancing the power, and those are two different measures one always has to keep in mind.
How would you describe current relation between Mr. Putin and FSB, especially with regards to interconnectivity of FSB and business sphere (as mentioned in “Putin at Midterm” article), and with regards to the planned reform.
I think Putin is part of the security services, but he is also independent of them. On any particular question he balances the actors and often the actor is the FSB. He doesn’t always give them what they want. Sometimes they get what they want. The interesting thing is that the FSB is widely seen as the part of law and order. In reality, parts of FSB are commercialized and pursue their own profits. And so, sometimes the FSB acts according to commercial interests of individual members of parts of the FSB, and not as a law enforcement agency. I would add that in the FSB there is a general preference for a large state role in business firms. Some governmental bodies, especially ministries, are run like private businesses – MINATOM, Ministry of Railways to name just these two. In addition, a lot of privately- owned big businesses have their own security firms to protect their interests. It is very difficult to distinguish what is private and what is not.
What is the relationship between Mr. Putin and Russian Army? Military was always a key player on Russian policy scene, and these days it seems that it is keeping back and waiting for its time to come. Can we expect any surprises in the Army’s involvement in Russian politics?
I would certainly disagree with some of your premises. I would say the relationship between Mr. Putin and the Russian Army is, as they say in Russian, “slozhno”, complicated. On one hand they clearly are weaker than they have been in a long while. But on the other hand they can still resist Putin’s efforts to reform the armed forces, and perhaps even a settlement in Chechnya. Moreover, you have to distinguish between various parts of the military. Remember last fall, when a prominent general serving in Chechnya publicly refused a new assignment. Can you imagine something like that happening in the United States? Never. So while the military is weaker in general, Putin still sometimes has troubles in controlling them, and the best is example is that it is still not reformed, despite the ten years we are talking about now. From that, however, does not follow that there will be a coup. It means they can exist substantially on their own in places like Trans Dnestria and Chechnya, where they are do business in oil and arms and can commit atrocities. There is really nothing Putin can do to stop that. So if Putin had ordered a withdrawal from Chechnya, I think it is an interesting question whether there would be a withdrawal. It’s a very, very troubling thing.
President Putin has significantly repressed the role of Russian media, he in fact “liquidated” every media opposition in his country. How is this step viewed by Western politicians and political scientists?
Yes, he has managed to control most of the media, but not all of them. That’s very troubling. But we should also remember that the press at the regional level is more independent, though not necessarily more professional. I am very much opposed to what he has done, but I think we also mistakenly view the Yeltsin’s era as one that was more open to the press. Yes, it was more open to the press in one sense, but the media a decade ago still represented powerful interests. It was pluralistic without being free. Thus, in Russia we have seen a change over the last ten years from this pluralism, which means that there were many different press voices featuring interests of whoever owned them, to a point where the government tries to control them. So it went from not fully acceptable to much worse. That’s where I think the trouble is. It troubles many, many people in the U.S., the press freedom. The question is what to do about it.
In principle, Putin supports their independence. Probably he means it, even though obviously one cannot be sure, but just as in question one we talked about pressure from certain part of the elites, in this area too there is a pressure from other elites -- for example, parts of the security services, parts of the Foreign Ministry, parts of military that are not comfortable with some former countries, especially Ukraine and Belarus, being independent. That doesn’t mean they are going to invade, but that means we see pressures always brought onto these countries through economic and political means. But this is part of the broader problem of Russian economics and business being key players in Russian foreign policy.
How would you access his position towards countries of the former communist bloc, did his position evolve through his presidential term? The situation as such was influenced through his term by NATO enlargement and further plans for enlargement, EU accession preparations etc.
The position of President Putin evolved through his term, and as such we saw some improvements through those times. The question always has to be looked at from two ways. One is triangular, which is to say Europe vs. U.S. vs. Russia. Looking at it that way, Putin began with a flirtation with the Europeans and, later, with the United States after 9/11. He tilted back toward France and Germany during the Iraq crisis. But overall I think Russia is seeking to project its power by playing a flexible diplomatic role with U.S. and Europe, depending on the issue and depending on the opportunities. In the long term, however, I think most of the Russian elites seek closer ties with the Europe.
Some of what we said about the former republics applies to places like Poland, Czech Republic and Slovakia, which is to say that feelings of an empire are sometimes hard to forget, and there is a temptation I think probably to regret the passing of the Eastern bloc, but also to continue to exert influence through economic means -- by Gazprom for example, as is the case with Slovakia. If you don’t have the military power to bear all over the former Soviet Union, not just over the Soviet bloc, but over Russian territory, then economic levers can be used to project power. So the economic issues, rather than security issues are increasingly the center of Russian foreign policy. Look at Iraq – it was interesting to watch that the issues in the weeks preceding the invasion between Moscow and Washington over what would happen were not security issues. They focused on Lukoil contracts. These se negotiations were carried out in Washington by the head of Russian Presidential Administration, Voloshin, not the Foreign Minister.
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