The beginning of a new Putin’s era
On presidential elections held in Russia Vladimir Putin undisputedly won the battle for the Kremlin. Nikolai Zlobin, Senior Fellow and Director of Russian and Asian Programs of the World Security Institute (USA) shared his views with the Valdai Discussion Club website on the next steps of the new President of the Russian Federation.
Mr. Zlobin, how strong do you think Mr. Putin's position is now, given the protests that are likely to happen?
Well, he managed to win this election with very strong support, and I think the secret of his victory is that he was able to unite people with different, and quite often with very opposite opinions – people standing with slogans for stability next to people who were supporting Putin, hoping he would bring change to Russia. He was able to keep them together. He was able to win the election. He was very good on that score, you have to admit.
But he won't be able to maintain that unity, and as soon as he starts his first political actions – and I think he hasn't yet decided which ones he is going to pursue – he will lose part of his support. And the question is, how much will he lose? How much will people and his supporters be disappointed with him over the next few years? And that will determine how much political power he will have to conduct his political program. In this election, he presented a political program that includes practically everything you could include. Putin wants to spend a lot of money to build an effective economy, also he wants to bring about democratic changes, but at the same time he wants to maintain stability. This is a basis of support for elections, it's not a basis for politics. He has to choose, and what his choice is – I think he doesn't know yet –his choice will very much define what his political basis will be over the next two years.
How big a threat are the opposition protests to him? Are they a real threat?
I don't think so. I think the bigger threat for him will be people he's going to replace within his own team. There's a huge public demand for new faces in government, in local and central one.
And Putin is known as a guy who doesn't get rid of his own, but this time he will have to replace hundreds of people who have been working for him over the last 20 years. I would suspect that some of these loyal people will turn against him. They will feel deceived. And that's Putin’s bigger problem, I think, because these are people with money, influence, administrative resources, connections, people who are capable of affecting public opinion, and so on. And if they join the current protesters, that will be a much more serious political movement.
So Putin has to decide whether he has to get rid of some people, how many, who and so on. Or he can ignore this public demand for new faces and bring his own team, his St. Petersburg team, or the people who have been around him for the past 20 years, and keep them, ignoring the public mood for changes in government. His decision to keep Medvedev as prime minister, I think, is kind of an indication of what he wants to do.
What do you think of Putin’s speech after the elections? There appeared to be tears and he seemed to be very passionate: "This is a blow against people who would destroy Russia."
I never took Putin as a good acting politician. I always thought his acting career would be a disaster. But these last two months I've started to change my opinion – maybe he took some classes. But I would say, and you'll understand what I'm talking about – the last two months, he was campaigning very much like a Western, maybe even an American politician: running around, showing a lot of emotion, this big meeting in Luzhniki. It's very much a Western-style political campaign. So Putin could change his style. And now I feel like probably he can control his emotions and show... He was always good at feeling what people expect from him. But now he can show it on his face. Typically his face had been like an iron mask, now it's not an iron mask anymore, and that's a big change for Putin.
You've spoken recently so much about people from outside wanting to destroy Russia and do damage to Russia. Is this dangerous for the rest of the world? Do you think Putin might become more aggressive in his foreign policy?
That's what I've been struggling with for many years. I've been trying to get people to think and try to remember, what actual anti-Western, anti-American steps Putin has taken in his real politics? And people can't remember. They only remember his rhetoric. Yes, his hard and sometimes aggressive anti-Western, anti-American, anti-Western European rhetoric. But if you look at his real politics, nothing was really done. He has much fewer points of conflict with Washington than I would say Sarkozy does currently. There's much more trouble between London and Paris than between Moscow and Washington.
Of course, Putin is not a pro-American Russian leader. But I would argue that he is not anti-American. With his domestic audience, he uses very hard anti-American and anti-Western rhetoric. But as a politician, I think he is much more careful, and I would never describe him and his politics as anti-Western. He's a rational, literal, in economic terms, a very careful politician, and I would say his big dream is to make the West the biggest friend of Russia. He tried, if you remember, in the beginning of his first term, and failed. He felt very disappointed, he felt personally deceived. I think he was angry with Washington, with Western Europe, and I think now he has a chance to overcome his bitter feelings towards the West and try again – and I think he would do that. I read his article and I would say it was a very mild, peaceful article. The word "enemy" was not used there at all. And I think that's a good sign.
What will change in Russian foreign policy after Vladimir Putin returns?
In his article regarding foreign policy, Putin said, for instance, that Russian-American relations should be relations about their economies. And I think it would be a very good turn, if Russia and America were to build economic relations like America has with China. They would build a united economy, a Russian-American economy, such that political disagreements would be so mild, so insignificant, then we would kind of calm down about all that. That's the first thing.
The second thing, I think, is that we will see how serious he is about building a Eurasian union. He didn't mention it in his article, strangely. I think this was a mistake, because according to the official line of Russian foreign policy, the post-Soviet space is a priority, and he can't ignore it. But he ignored it in his article. So I would like to see what the real story is. That's the second thing.
The third thing that I think is crucial for Russia now is to build a very smart line toward the Arab world. Russian decisions on Libya, and then on Syria, are quite different. Nobody knows what to expect next. The Russian attitude toward Iraq and toward Afghanistan is unclear now. Russia is losing its position and its influence in the Arab world. It's much more important for Russia to use the current situation to increase Russian influence in the Middle East, if Russia can manage it.
Will Russia’s stance on Syria and Middle East change after the elections? What steps can we expect from Mr. Putin on this matter?
I would say he probably has to act slowly and carefully but somehow to indicate that the Russian position on Syria can be changed. And Assad is not the main goal of Russian politics in the Middle East. The Russian goal is Russian influence, Russian relations with the West and Russian relations with the Arab world – not Assad. Because those decisions I believe were made very much based on the Russian political situation before the elections. And somehow he now has to take a step back and to be much more flexible on that.
Concerning Assad, what do mean when you say he has to change his stance on this matter?
The problem is that Russia is losing its influence in the Arab world, and that is because Russia has made certain decisions based on an attitude toward Assad and an attitude toward elections in Russia. Putin wanted to look like a strong leader who can challenge the West on that front. Nobody likes the Russian position on Libya because it was indecisive. And the Arab world is crucial for Russia to have on their side vis-a-vis the West.
Putin has to show his priorities toward the Arab world. The Assad regime is not a priority. Russia's place in the Arab world is a priority. Russian participation in any decision making – how to design a new world order in this region – is a Russian priority. Not saving Assad and not building politics just to disagree with America – this would be foolish. It's good for elections, it's not good for real politics. And now he has to change from what's good for elections to what's good for long-term politics.
And what will change in Russian-American relations?
I think we're all tired of Russian-American relations repeating the Cold War agenda. It's the same story: Putin talking to Bush, Putin talking to Obama about the same topics – Brezhnev talking to Carter or Reagan – it's like a merry-go-round. So we need to bring in new content. It's empty. And the only content that this can be is business. Russian-American relations are empty, they're hungry for business. And the problem is mostly on the Russian side. American investors don't like the economic and political environment in Russia, the instability, privatization of relations. And I think it's in Putin's interest, and in Putin's power now to seriously change this environment in Russia, to bring, first of all, Western investors, Western money and Western technology.
That's what he indicated in his article, and I think it's absolutely the right idea. It's a crucial idea. If it doesn't happen then Russian-American relations will remain vulnerable to any political disagreement, such as a missile-defense system, or Syria. And neither of us needs it. America and China, as you know, have built practically a united American-Chinese economy. And political disagreements between Beijing and Washington look so microscopic compared to the huge economic basis that they have. That's what Russia's goal is.
In what spheres in the economy can we extend our cooperation?
Well, a lot, actually. I would say from atomic energy, in which Russia is very competitive, to energy itself, of course, to even, I would say, arms sales. I think Putin indicated in his article on arms that he is willing to cooperate on technology, and I think this is a good thing. Russia has to be a part of global competition. I think it's very healthy for the Russian economy. And I think that everywhere Russia is technologically capable, Russia has to be open.
And where Russia is not technologically capable, Russia has to bring in Western, American, or Western European competitors, which will be a shock to the country’s economy. For instance, when the decision was made to buy the Mistral from France... I think it was important, but I think it was such a reality check for the Russian military-industrial complex. They realized that they might be forgotten. And they decided to work on it. Because if you're willing to buy from somewhere else, then people have to work. That's what I think Russia has to do.
And the same is true with the United States. Russia has something to offer. We have lots of things, from information technology, to military technology, from software to a lot of hard science, space, atomic energy, navigation, and so on – you know, America doesn't have icebreakers, for instance, not at all, and when we start to compete for the North Pole, that will be kind of important. But I think Russia is too shy to offer what it has. There's kind a feeling in Russia that we aren't compatible, that we can't bring anything to the world market – it's not true. And I think American businessmen, American public opinion regard Russia much more highly than Russia does itself. That Russian problem has to be overcome, and if Putin can accomplish this, it will be a great achievement for him.
Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.