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Transcript

Putin's Push to Retain Power

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Peter Finn
Washington Post Moscow Bureau Chief
Monday, December 3, 2007; 11:00 AM

Washington Post Moscow bureau chief Peter Finn was online Monday, Dec. 3 at 11 a.m. ET to examine the results of Russia's parliamentary elections, President Vladimir Putin's drive to retain power beyond his constitutional term limits, and the latest news out of Russia.

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Read Finn's reports and find full coverage of Russia's elections.

The transcript follows.

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Peter Finn: Good evening from Moscow. I just sat down so lets get started.

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New York: Hello Mr. Finn. I publish the Russia blog La Russophobe. I'd like to take this opportunity to thank The Post for its yeoman work in leading coverage of the rise of the neo-Soviet Union in Russia, something I've been warning about for quite some time now. My question: Do you think other Western media outlets have done as much as they should to protect their besieged colleagues in Russia following the murder of Anna Politkovskaya, and specifically to call the people of Russia to account for their part in what now only can be viewed as an atrocity being perpetrated in their names?

washingtonpost.com: Russians Honor a Crusading Journalist (Post, Oct. 8)

Peter Finn: Hello to La Russophobe. Your fearsome reputation goes before you. The Western media as you know is a broad term and one that the Kremlin and its allies like to employ to homogenize what is often very different coverage. On Anna Politkovskaya, we are interested in covering every development in the case and following the coverage of Novaya Gazeta. It is extremely difficult for us to probe the case independently because the investigation, like many Russian investigations, is closed off. Also our resources in bureaus here can be limited compared to what we could bring to bear on a subject if it were for instance the murder of a journalist in a Western country. But there is a desire to write as much as we can, keep the issue alive, and I'm open to any suggestions as to how we can do better.

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Mt. Lebanon, Pa.: Venezuela just denied Hugo Chavez additional "constitutional" powers. I guess the attempt by Chavez to Putinize his grip on power has failed -- assuming that he abides by the decision of his people's representatives. Any lessons here for Putin? After all, Musharraf (ostensibly) has seen the light. Any light forthcoming in the gulag? Thanks much.

Peter Finn: I guess one lesson that opposition and Kremlin critics would say that Putin and his allies already drew was the elections are unpredictable. According to the assessment of the observers here, the power of the state was merged with United Russia's campaign to ensure no surprises. And the Kremlin is likely to continue to follow its model of mobilizing the state to ensure victory in the upcoming presidential elections, according to the opposition and others here.

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Orlando, Fla.: Good Morning. The current Russian constitution limits the presidential term to two consecutive (four-year) terms, meaning that Putin soon will have to step down. Some say that Putin will attempt to retain his hold on power by "selecting" a presidential successor (much in the same way Putin was "selected" by Yeltsin) and then becoming a leader of the political party "United Russia." After the end of his successor's term, it has been suggested that he might run for president again. How realistic is this prediction?

Peter Finn: All predictions remain realistic until President Putin acts. And he seems to like surprises, scuttling what the political elite and others here think he will do. One option for him is to appoint a seat-warmer who will resign within a decent amount of time while allowing Putin to return and still respect the letter of the constitution. Another is to return in 2012 after four years. But the longer someone is in the Kremlin the more likely they to not want to leave. Another option, using United Russia's constitutional majority, is to shift power to the parliament and become president. Or perhaps he will surprise us all and head in to a comfortable private life.

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Orlando, Fla.: Good morning. There has been a lot of talk about the improvement and growth of the Russian economy recently, mostly because of profits from the high cost of energy. How much of the development in Russia's economic sector is because of the illegitimate seizing of private energy companies? Also, if the Russian government did not have the control of the profits from these seized companies, would it be able to reassert itself as a world power, as it is attempting to today?

Peter Finn: The Russian government doesn't need to control the companies directly to benefit from the high price of oil. The tax system here is such that it is getting pretty much everything above $27 or $28 a barrel. That's a lot of money. Russia now has the third largest reserves in the world. It views control of the oil and natural gas sector as essential because it is a strategic asset in its dealing with other countries and projects the power of Russia.

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Washington: Is it possible that Putin met with Ahmadinejad of Iran recently to jack up oil prices? It's only 11 percent of the Russian economy, but these prices have to help him. Also, can we take some solace in the unwillingness of the Venezuelan population to crown Chavez president for life? Could it suggest a future Russia with no Putin?

washingtonpost.com: Oil Price Rise Causes Global Shift in Wealth (Post, Nov. 10)

Peter Finn: The Iranians had wanted a meeting for a long time, but I don't think it was about oil. Russia is a price-taker not a price-maker in the parlance of oil types. The nuclear issue was high on the agenda and Putin is looking for a solution but not one that necessarily follows the West's agenda. He is impatient with Iran, doesn't want them to have a nuclear weapon, but doesn't believe in sanctions and is totally opposed to military action. So far, however, Russia's diplomatic efforts have not achieved much.

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Harrisburg, Pa.: What is the about Putin that his supporters like? Are we getting an accurate picture here in America as to the reasons behind his popularity? Just how popular is he, really?

Peter Finn: Putin's supporters credit him with the country's increased prosperity, which has seen poverty levels halved and real wages increase. They also credit him with restoring Russian self-confidence and Russia's place in the world. They look back on the 1990s and the presidency of Boris Yeltsin as a period when Russia was enfeebled and beholden to the West. The question is: How would his popularity be affected is he was subject to open political competition and a harsh media. Probably some. But he would still win. But the Kremlin apparently doesn't believe in the risk of open political pluralism, according to its critics. Hence the stage management of the most recent election and, more broadly, the country's political life.

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Labinsk, Russia: We are very proud to have such an adequate statesman as President Vladimir Putin. If you were well-informed about the real situation in Russia, you could be really glad for us. Russia is managed by the top professionals now. They do a great job. The 70 percent support of the president is a logical consequence of a wise and pragmatic policy and hard work during the past eight years. Best regards from South Russia.

Peter Finn: Thanks for a question from Russia. And it nicely gives a sense of Russian resentment of Western criticism. Yes, Putin is popular. Yes, Russia is doing well. And it is now a power to be reckoned with. The criticism focuses, as the Western observers did today, on a controlled media environment, the use of administrative resources to get a result, and a general lack of trust in an open political competition. All power has come to reside in the executive branch and critics of the Kremlin, some of whom wish only the best for Russia, believe a weak judiciary, parliament and media does not help the country.

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Washington: Why is it our business if Putin becomes prime minister, or speaker of the Russian parliament or whatever? Last I checked, Russia is a sovereign nation. Now, if they attempt to influence elections in other nations -- as they have done in the past in the Ukraine -- then we have an issue. I understand the need to report on the issue, so I don't mean to be attacking you or coverage, but the U.S. seems to be getting involved in who can and cannot lead certain countries lately, and I think it is unhealthy to do. We possibly could be on the verge of electing chain of presidents named Bush, Clinton, Bush and Clinton. Do we really have the market cornered on a healthy democracy? Just saying...

Peter Finn: One answer is that after the fall of the Soviet Union Russia committed itself to international democratic standards as set down by organizations such as the Council of Europe and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. And observers from those groups said today that Russia was failing to meet its commitments. In the end, Russia will go its own way, and Putin will become what ever he chooses to be next. The U.S. and others would argue that if Russia wants to be seen as democratic it needs to follow democratic standards to achieve its ends.

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Tampa, Fla.: I don't understand why Putin feels he needs to suppress the opposition and rig the vote. Everything I read tells me he would win -- and win big -- in free and fair elections in which the opposition parties ran unhindered. So why does he even bother with undemocratic practices? Is Putin paranoid like Nixon, who ran dirty tricks against McGovern in '72 even though he had the election in the bag?

Peter Finn: I think there is some fear, or paranoia, that stability must be maintained above all and that leads the authorities to seek a pre-ordained result, which they might achieve anyway. I think you could make a good case that if the election was completely free and open, Putin and United Russia would still win, but not by as much. He is genuinely popular. There is no real alternative as the opposition is so fragmented. But there is an unwillingness to test their own real popularity.

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Seattle: How much of the oil money is going to appeasement, corruption and all the stuff that you would expect, and how much of it is going to repairing the Russian infrastructure and economy? Basically, is Putin using the oil money constructively?

Peter Finn: Hard question to answer. Corruption is endemic and although he has railed against it, it has grown in his tenure, according to non-governmental organizations. That may have been inevitable given the flood of petro-dollars into the country. But who's got what and where is impossible to answer. There is also increased spending on medical care, education, housing, agriculture, infrastructure etc. But it's hard to see the results yet as Russia is starting from such a low point.

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Anonymous: Putin's reign is a real threat to other democracies as such regimes are always enemy hungry. From previous experience, representatives of developed democracies do know that such authoritarian leaders have no stopping in repressions and slavery ideology. Why do these democracies, powerful in worldwide political image, look hopefully at Putin's deeds? Why do they still cherish the hope that he has any conscience?

Peter Finn: Russia remains a vital country on a range of issues from energy to nuclear proliferation so there is and will continue to be engagement with Russia. Yes, there is increased rhetoric here about "enemies"--the U.S., Estonia, Georgia, etc. The hope is that it's partly electioneering and that in the end responsible people still run the ship.

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Lincoln, Neb.: Are the majority of Russians financially better off since Putin has been president, or is the increasing prosperity confined to the major cities?

Peter Finn: As I mentioned earlier the poverty rate has been halved and wages are increasing. There is of course still lots of poverty and the gap between rich and poor is staggering. But the prosperity, once only visible in Moscow and St. Petersburg, is spreading across the country so you can see real differences in provincial cities to just two years ago. And that again is another reason why enjoys a great deal of popularity.

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Washington: What are the prospects for the opposition going forward? Is there any chance that one of the liberal parties like Yabloko can become relevant again? Is Other Russia too heterogeneous to be a cohesive force? Surely the opposition won't just pack it in despite Putin's dominance, but what strategy could possibly pay off for them?

Peter Finn: Their future looks bleak unless the opposition can somehow reconfigure itself into some kind of new, united party. All of the parties such as Yabloko, even allowing for the pressure they are under, appear exhausted and marginal. They also expend vast amounts of energy fighting other small marginal opposition parties. They are unlikely, for instance, to come up with a single candidate for the presidency so Nemtsov, Yavlinsky, Kasparov, Kasyanov, Bukovsky will all run when they are essentially looking for the same voters to back them.

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Bethesda, Md.: The election outcome didn't surprise me and I don't think it should surprise other Americans. We have similar examples in this country of politicians who cannot relinquish power -- Larry Craig, Joe Lieberman, George W. Bush -- and will use everything they can to hold onto it. Power can corrupt; we should always be mindful of that.

Peter Finn: Not sure I need to comment on this, just post it.

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Volunteer101: This election leads me to contemplate the true meaning of democracy ... is it more important to have a "fair" election but not the popular vote (Bush), or an "unfair" election and popular support (Putin)? I would argue that democracy -- for the people, by the people -- would consider Putin to have more democratic authority.

Peter Finn: That's another interesting perspective. And of course Russians routinely point to the events in Florida when their own system is criticized. They also point out that American are not keen on observers and there were only 16 in the U.S. for the last congressional elections compared to the 450 one arm of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe wanted to send to Russia this time. They regard that as a double-standard. One set of rules for the East and another for the West.

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Munich, Germany: What is the prevailing journalistic opinion on why Putin's administration would tolerate the Communist Party but not the Yabloko and the Union of Right Forces? Does it have something to do with a suspected Western influence on the Yabloko Party and the Union of Right Forces?

Peter Finn: The Communist Party is weak and aging, and unless it reforms itself along the lines of Eastern European successor parties, it will ultimately fade away. And it isn't, at least now, a serious electoral threat. The Communists also share some of United Russia's ideological tenets--a great Russia, strong defense and a kind of nostalgia for the Soviet Union. Difficult to explain why the authorities went after the Union of Right Forces so hard this time. The Moscow Times reported that the Union and the Kremlin had reached an understanding that the Union would get into the Duma, but it fell apart for some reason. Both sides deny any deal. But the Union of Right Forces became more confrontational, even joining Kasparov on the street, and they were under immense pressure during the campaign.

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Princeton, N.J.: Let's seem, in the U.S. wages are stagnant, poverty is increasing, some cities are in decline -- and most importantly, income and wealth inequality is not only increasing, but the rate of of increase is increasing. And we wonder why Putin is popular?

Peter Finn: Another statement, which I'll post.

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Re: Putin's "surprises": How much of Putin's caginess is him trying to confound internal opponents and how much is him trying to keep other nations guessing? Where is his attention more focused, outside or inside Russia?

Peter Finn: Well his caginess, as you put it, prevents anyone from considering him a lame duck. If we already knew the successor and he appeared to be a permanent figure, large parts of the elite and the regional authorities would start to gravitate away from Putin and towards the new guy. He also needs to satisfy the various factions within the Kremlin who might erupt in open feuding over who the successor would be if Putin was known to be going. So I think his caginess is mostly for domestic political reasons, particularly within the walls of the Kremlin.

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pgriffin: It's simplistic to think that this is all being driven by one man, namely Putin. The scary thing is the re-emergence of a Kremlin-based power elite in Russia: men who are unanswerable to anyone and who have little problem with killing people and putting poor Russia under their fists -- forever, it seems...

Peter Finn: The Kremlin is not one power-elite. It's several parts of the elite held together by Putin who some consider the chairman of the board. The question of succession is so charged because the glue holding the various factions together appears quite fragile. And we've already seen some open splits between elements of the security services.

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Munich, Germany: Regarding Putin's future, is it a certain thing that he'll retain his decision-making arbiter powers by taking on the job of Party Leader, while relinquishing the presidency to someone of his choosing?

Peter Finn: Wish I could tell you what Putin will do. I don't know. No one does. But he will retain some pivotal role. What we don't know, although many people are guessing, is the mechanism he will choose.

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armondpeasleejr: But all it takes is for the next president of Russia to dissolve the Parliament if he has any problems with them; then he can call for a new election of Parliament.

Peter Finn: And, under that scenario, essentially run against Putin as the party leader. Now that would be interesting!

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Peter Finn: Thanks a lot everyone. I have to go. Do svidaniya.

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Editor's Note: washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. washingtonpost.com is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.


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