Author`s name Timothy Bancroft-Hinchey

Eight years of Putin in the Russian Presidency: A balance

No people in precarious economic conditions can have much chance to be able to properly govern themselves democratically."

Aldous Huxley, Return to the Brave New World

Next Sunday, the 2nd of March, there will be presidential elections in Russia, and in May it will expand the mandate of the current president, Vladimir Vladimirovitch Putin. The Russian chief executive was first-minister and assumed the highest executive position with the surprise resignation of Boris Yeltsin, on 31 of December of 1999. The previous president had serious health problems (although he lived almost 8 years more) and already had revealed his decision that Putin was his successor, at the time a figure little known inside or outside of his country. In August of last year, at the end of his second mandate, Putin's popularity is not less than 82%, which makes him the leader with largest approval.

However, in the majority of the western countries, he is accused of accumulating power, of adopting aggressive foreign policy, and making Russia retreat from the strenuous way on the road to democracy. Sorting through the eight years that Putin was in power will show that, though there have been errors and regressions, Russia is on a correct path and does not seem to have a risk of returning to what it was 25 years ago.

The western press bears a good part of the fault in the creation of the distorted image of Putin, while emphasizing some facts and ignoring others, something unforgivable today since the time has already passed in which sovietologists tried to guess the influence of each member of the Party according to his position in the parades and commemorations. Although the Russian political system is still hardly transparent (it is enough to see the mystery of the succession of Putin, whose candidate was nominated only in December of 2007, and the one that the current president will dedicate to when leaving office), there is an enormous amount of available information to anyone on the Internet, of half independent and half official and, in some languages (in English mainly, but not only English: the main Russian news agency, RIA Novosti, has versions in several languages). Although many still see Russia as a distant and mysterious country, there are no more excuses for disinformation.

An example of the disinformation of the western press: to support the theory that Putin feels a longing for the Soviet Union and wants to return to that system, they often quote a speech given on the 25th of April of 2005, in which the Russian president affirmed: we would have to recognize that the collapse of the Soviet Union was the most enormous geopolitical disaster of the century. Isolating this sentence, taking it out of context, it really seems that that Putin wants to turn to the good times of the USSR. The continuation of his speech (available in English on the president's site will reveal its true context: "For the Russian nation, it became a true drama. Ten of millions of our citizens and compatriots were out of Russian territory. Even more, was the epidemic of disintegration that affected Russia itself.

The savings of the individuals were devalued, and old ideals had been destroyed. Many institutions had been dissolved or remodeled without care. Terrorist interventions and the capitulation of Khasavyurt that followed had harmed the integrity of the country. Oligarchical groups - that possessed absolute control on the channels of communication - served exclusive interests. Poverty in mass began to be seen as the norm.

Everything was happening in a context of dramatic economic fall, unstable finances, and the paralyzing of the social sphere. There is no doubt that the end of the USSR and the reforms that followed had an immense human and social cost, although they were necessary and Putin refers to that in his speech. The continuation of his speech goes on quite clearly: the president shows that it is necessary to become the most efficient state, while social assets reduce poverty; optimize democracy, increase civil liberties; and continue liberal reforms to increase the space of the private enterprises.

Also, the western press did not report that in 2006, Putin expressed official regret to Hungary and the Czech Republic for the Soviet military interventions in these countries, which had taken place in 1956 and 1968, respectively; that in 2005 removed of the 7th of November vacation, in which the socialist Revolution of 1917 was commemorated, substituting for it the 4th of November , the day of
Unity (the day in which Russian troops, in the year of 1612, retook Moscow, putting end to Polish occupation and the taking of the throne by the first of the Romanov dynasty); and who, on the 30th of October of 2007, visited a monument to the victims of Soviet political repression (principally Stalinist), and used it to emphasize the importance of the freedom of opposition and dissent. Not even Boris Yeltsin, the principal person in charge for the end of the USSR while declaring the independence of Russia in 1991, dared to take such actions, since the Communist party was still too strongly in the decade of the 90s.

Internal policy

The immense popularity of Putin has two principal important causes, the success of his government and the relative pacification of the separatist republic of Chechnya, and its enormous economic success. A few years ago, it was not believed that the pacification and stabilization of Chechnya was possible, which declared its independence from Russia little after the end of the USSR. After having been unable to defeat the separatists in the campaign that lasted from 1994 to 1996, the armed Russian force was withdrawn from the region and left the question of independence to be resolved in the future. Though not de jure, Chechnya then became independent in fact, and in this interim it fell more and more under the influence of Islamic roots.

When Putin took office as prime minister, in August of 1999, the situation in the Caucasus worsened: Chechen guerrillas went from the republic and invaded the neighboring Dagestan, also part of Russia, trying to take away the whole Northern Caucasus of the federation. Next month, in a period of only 2 weeks, four residential buildings exploded in the cities of Moscow, Buynaksk and Volgodonsk, killing more than 300 persons. That began the second campaign in Chechnya that, against all the predictions, was importantly successful: the separatist movement was dislodged completely, made incapable of resisting the advancement of the troops and managed to control almost the whole territory, with military and civilian losses less than those of the first campaign.

Putin's success in eliminating the Chechen guerrilla war did so that they, unsuccessful resisting the Russian armed forces, started more and more to use terrorist attacks against civilians and out of the region in conflict. The president committed the serious mistake (so much more serious thinking that he was part of the intelligence services) of not getting ready for such an eventuality, and in the
period between 2002 and 2004 Russia suffered a series of terrorist attacks, most terrible of which was the seizure of the Dubrovka theater (129 dead hostages), the bomb in the exit of a station of the subway in Moscow (40 dead men), two passenger planes exploded in the air almost in the same instant (89 dead men) and the most brutish thing of all, the seizure of the school in Beslan (334 dead hostages, including 186 children).

It was independently from there that Russia initiated intelligence activities to identify, track and eliminate the main controllers of the separatists and terrorists in the Caucasus, and also had success in this: In March of 2005, Russian special troops killed the proclaimed Chechen separatist president, Aslan Maskhadov, in June of 2006 killed the proclaimed successor, Abdul Khalim Saydulayev and, in the following month, the most bloodthirsty of the terrorist leaders, responsible one for the worst attacks - Shamil Basayev. Today Chechnya is almost totally rebuilt (6, since it recognized the commissioner of human rights of the Council of Europe, Thomas Hammarberg), and is relatively stable and more peace-loving than it would have been thought possible to imagine a few years ago. Last year, more than 600 guerrillas not wrapped up in terrorist activities surrendered their arms and (7) were granted amnesty. However, there are still skirmishes between rebels and security forces, while the situation in the nearby republics of the Ingushetia and Dagestan got worse last year, with the increase of attacks against security forces and the population of ethnic Russians. Also there are denunciations of abuses of power, torture and seizures of part of the security forces, principally the regional). The situation of the Northern Caucasus, though it has improved, is still far from being satisfactory.

On the other hand, the economy was a fully successful sector of the of Putin government. They criticize a great deal but they recognize the notable advancement of Russia: the GNP grew an average of 6,7 annual % from 1998, being in 2007 the 9th largest economy of the world. The country passed from being in deficit to holder of the 3rd largest international reserve of dollars of the world (US$ 463 billion in November of 2007, behind only the giants Japan and China) The growth is not due exclusively to oil, as many believe. Though this raw material is the principal product of export (Russia is the second greatest exporter of oil, after Saudi Arabia), the economy is diversifying in July of last year, Russian industrial production grew 12,5% in a period of 12 months, while mineral production only 1,5 % ). Sectors of high technology began to be developed: for example, in 2006 the exports of software reached US$ 1,5 billion, while in 2001 they were 128 million. The state is going to invest US$ 5,8 billion up to 2025 to modernize the electronic industry, and US$ 7,7 billion up to 2015 in order that to develop the nanotechnology sector. Some military industries, which got billionaire export contracts, also began to diversify production for the civil branch: Sukhoi the manufacturer of combat airplanes last year presented a new passenger plane, developed with the participation of European and North American enterprises, and it intends to get at least 10% of the worldwide market.

The strong growth and development of sectors with bigger aggregate value had had a consequence in life conditions: the poverty index lowered to 30% of the population, in 1999, 17% in 2007. This index is comparable to countries with higher level of life, but it shows fast progress.

The only serious economic problem that affects Russia is inflation, which was greater than 11% in 2007, when it should not surpass 8 %, according to the marks of the government.

Controversial subjects

This was demonstrated in the legislative elections of the last year: the government was criticized for making access difficult the to opposing parties, for raising the minimum number of votes to obtain chairs in the parliament (of 5% to7%), and for lowering the minimum amount of voters to consider a lawsuit valid, and for support of the state to United Russia party, that got more than 60% of the votes. But only the last criticism is really valid, since no party (besides the four that got chairs in the parliament) even reached 3% of the votes, and this though the voters' number that they announced in the last lawsuit has been larger than in the previous one. There are strong signs of irregularities in these elections (as, for example, that United Russia has received 99 % of the votes in Chechnya), but not that the results are universally invalid. The last elections confirmed that the opposition in Russia is fragile not so much for obstacles placed by the government (they exist but are not insurmountable), but because they have no appeal among the majority of the population.

The movement "Another Russia" is the opposing group that most seduces the west and attracts the attention of the media, which shows it as a grouping of liberal forces against the Putin regime. It is not totally the truth. It is an amorphous group, where fragmented organizations exist that defend democracy and human rights, but also extreme right and left, including the controversial (and forbidden) National-Bolshevik (a distorted Frankenstein of Marxist and Nazi remains). They do not share any common ideology, values or common proposals, and the only thing that joins them is opposition to the current government. More coherent parties of opposition, like Yabloko and the Communists refused to join this coalition.

Be that as it may, the movement, "Another Russia" is the opposing group that wins most space in the western environment, thanks to their protest marches and the police action that nearly always follows. Nothing justifies the repression against unarmed demonstrators, but also it is necessary to say that the members of Another Russia intentionally carry out marches where they did not receive authorization and they cut the traffic in Moscow or St. Petersburg, looking to provoke police action. Considering that it has almost no appeal among the population, this seems to this one to be its principal tactics to attract attention. Moreover, the authorities
do not only restrain the unauthorized marches of movements of the opposition: in January some members of the group Nashi (Ours, in Russian), pro-Kremlin, were detained and this organization received a fine for protesting in front of a representation of the European Union without authorization.

A speech of the president a little before the parliamentary elections also revealed a disdain for the opposition, or at least part of it, when affirming that opponents want to return to the times of the USSR or the chaos of the decade of 90s, and that they are in the service of foreign powers. Although western interference probably exists in internal Russian politics (disguised as aid to strengthen democracy, as well as there was in Georgia and in the Ukraine recently), to accuse the opposition of betraying their country and affirming that only their party can create a strong Russia is a not a very democratic attitude, which uses the fear of the population of returning to the serious problems faced so very recently.

But it is necessary to add that such emotional manipulation is not uncommon in countries also considered fully democratic. A subject that should not even be dealt with in this text, since it belongs to the criminal annals and not political, is the murders of the ex-agent of the FSB (the service of state-owned security, one of the agencies that replaced the extinct KGB) Aleksandr Litvinenko and of the journalist Anna Politkovskaya. Both were very critical of the current government, and this wide-ranging circumstance hits upon many people such as Putin (or some high member of the government) to blame for the deaths. The Litvinenko case (dead in November of 2006 in London, where he was exiled from 2000 and poisoned with a highly radioactive substance, polonium 210) is still inadequately explained: the British authorities also accuse ex-agent of the FSB Andrei Lugovoi and ask his extradition. The accused declares his innocence, and the Russian authorities contend that there is insufficient evidence against Lugovoi, and denied his extradition insisting that the constitution does not allow it. There are several hypotheses for the death of Litvinenko: he may have been murdered by the Russian government, in reprisal for his desertion (this seems to be the preferred one in western public opinion); he was wrapped up in organized crime; he wanted to supply radioactive material for a terrorist attack in the Caucasus, and by accident he was contaminated; or that he was poisoned by the businessman (Boris Berezovski was also exiled in London), to stain the reputation of Putin.

However, there is no proof to support the any one of them. The widow of Litvinenko said that she is going to accuse the Russian government of the murder of her husband; with complete lack of evidences, and no minimally fair court would accept even to commence such a process. We do not know who killed Litvinenko, but it is fitting to ask a relevant question: why would the Russian government mount a complex, expensive and very risky, lone operation to kill an ex-spy who had already revealed all the secrets that he knew several years ago? It is difficult to imagine what the Kremlin gained with the death of Litvinenko.

The murder of opposing journalist Anna Politkovskaya, occurred in Moscow and this investigation depends only on the Russian authorities, the process is much more advanced, though still not completely solved. Politkovskaya was harshly criticizing Putin, principally during the second war in Chechnya, and she was killed inside her building, in October of 2006. There are 10 suspects in the crime, between them an official of the Department to Combat Organized Crime and a lieutenant-colonel of the FSB. The independent newspaper (and great critic of the Kremlin) where Politkovskaya was working, Novaya Gazeta, carried out parallel investigations and confirmed and coincided with those of the Russian Procuracy. They affirmed, however, that the intellectual author of the crime was still not found, and criticized the speed with which the Procuracy revealed information to the public, damaging the progress of the investigation. However, the Russian authorities can be easily excused of this mistake, since they are under strong international pressure to resolve the case as quickly as possible, and to prove that no high member of the government is involved.

The west also harshly criticizes the Russian authorities for restricting the work of the non governmental organizations (NGOs) in the country; to remove the independence of the judiciary; to take control of the media; and to nominate governors of the regions and republics, which should be independent. However, Nicolai Petro, an academic and ex-official of the State Department during the
administration of George H. W. Bush (1989-1993), wards off this criticism, and affirms that in fact none of them has any basis: to speak of restriction in a country in which the number of NGOs functioning surpassed 100.000, in the year 2000, and 600.000 in 2007.

As for the supposed lack of independence of the judiciary, Petro shows that 71% of the proceedings enacted by citizens against the state benefited them, and that the population more and more shows confidence in and uses the justice system to resolve conflicts. Most of the Russian media are independent, being that the participation of the state in the printed environment is only 10%, electronic almost non-existent, and it is important only in television, though there are also private sectors with national reach, only recently opened. Finally, as for the nomination system of the governors of republics and autonomous regions, it works from 2004 the following way: after legislative elections, the parties that gained seats in the parliament sends the names of their candidates to a presidential commission, which revises them (principally to detect cases of serious corruption or involvement with organized crime, which are still common in the local authorities) and, with this endorsement, nearly always governors nominate the member of the party who obtained the biggest number of votes. Undoubtedly it is a measure that reduces local autonomy, but it is not an arbitrary nomination by the president, as the process depends more than anything of the parliament and of the local voters primarily.

Finally, much is said on the Russian military escalation during the Putin government. Really, there was an important increase of defense expenses, and finally Russia managed to reverse the decline that its armed forces were suffering from the end of the USSR. But it is not possible to speak in terms of escalation, because the growth of defense expenses has been caused by the economy, and the proportion of soldiers / GNP expenditures has remained stable, between 2,5 % to 2,8 %. On the other hand, the USA spends much more not only in absolute values, but also in relation to the GNP: 4,06 %. Russia is not returning to the times of the cold war nor does it intend to, conscientious of the serious problems that immense Soviet military expenses had caused to the economy of the country.

External policy

As for external politics, for Russia Putin has the objective to restore the country as a worldwide power, and the economic recuperation has facilitated reaching this end. Following is a short summary of the evolved relations of Russia with different countries in the last eight years. Russia and China are the principal members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, created in the decade of the 90s which also has as full members almost all the countries of old Central Soviet Asia (except Turkmenistan), and as observers India, Pakistan and Iran. These countries cooperate economically and militarily, and there are plans of turning the SCO into a military alliance and an area of free commerce.

During the Putin government, important agreements were signed with China, among which two are outstanding: that of strategic cooperation, which makes both countries allied both economically and militarily, valid for 20 years; and the definite recognition of frontiers, removing the old Russian fear of a forced annexation of the south of Siberia on the part of the Chinese. Russia also is diversifying its exports of oil and gas (up to today directed almost completely to the USA and Europe), building the first oil pipelines and gas pipelines bound for China and Japan. Finally, Sino-Russian cooperation is crucial to resolve the problem of a nuclear North Korean program, since they are the only two states that maintain good relations with the isolated regime of Pyongyang.

India also is a very important partner for several decades. In the times of the USSR, India was the only country of the Warsaw Pact that received the most sophisticated arms. Today, India purchases the most modern Russian arms, as it also participates in the development of some. Moreover, they cooperate in the nuclear, naval and space sector. In spite of the fact that the USA looked to increase interchange with New Delhi, up until now Russia keeps on being the principal partner in strategic sectors.

Russia is important again in the Middle East, thanks to its good relations with Syria, Iran and the Palestinian Authority. Some accusations, principally from the USA and Israel, allege Moscow arms warlike and terrorist countries (Syria and Iran are implied) and gives them nuclear technology, these charges are completely unfounded. The sales of arms for Syria and Iran were small and limited to anti-aircraft defense systems, which cannot be used in offensive operations. The atomic cooperation on Iran confines itself to the construction of a nuclear power facility for generation of energy, supervised by the International Agency of Atomic Energy, and it cannot be used to make enriched uranium or plutonium for the manufacture of nuclear weapons. Iran has a uranium enrichment central office, whose technology was obtained through Pakistan, and Russia objects to this program. Be that as it may, according to the declarations of the AIEA and even of the intelligence services of the USA (contradicting president George Bush), there is no evidence that Iran is developing nuclear weapons.

Russia also reclaimed some ground in the African continent, principally with sales of arms and mineral exploration projects. The principal partners are Libya, Algeria and Angola (where Russian enterprises are the principal foreign companies that explore oil and diamonds). Russia's relations with Latin America are still not very deep. In 2002 Putin closed the last Russian military base in Cuba, being removed almost completely from the country (probably as a gesture of good-will to Washington). However, Venezuela has been approached, which has been buying many Russian arms to substitute the North Americans, since the USA does not sell any more spare parts. Also they are initiating agreements for Russian enterprises to begin to explore gas and oil. On the other hand, two bigger economies of South America, Brazil and Argentina, still have few relations with Russia, and they almost only include the export of meat.

European-Russian relations got worse with the entry of ex-socialist countries to the European Union in 2004 (Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Slovenia, Bulgaria and Romania). Though there are exceptions, many of these countries have a strongly anti-Russian political diary and try to impede new agreements.

Particularly notable was the case of Poland, that vetoed a new agreement of cooperation between the European Union and Russia because this one canceled the import of Polish meat due to sanitary questions: a bilateral subject that can be resolved only by two involved countries without damaging the interests of many people. However, Russia and Poland concluded an agreement for improving the exports of meat, and it is possible that the Polish veto will be lifted.

Moreover, the "New Europe" (as the North American neoconservatives regard the countries of the old Soviet block) in general is more interested in pleasing Washington than Brussels and Poland again is an emblematic case, since it accepted the proposal for the establishment of an anti-missile defense system of the USA installed on its territory without consulting its neighbors or many members of NATO (the military alliance that wraps the USA and almost all the countries of Europe), and very often it criticizes common European values, like the removal of the death penalty.

Relations with Old Europe, in other words, the members older and richer of EU, are much better. Even countries that recently elected right wing leaders who talked badly about Russia during their campaigns, like Germany and France, did not alter the politics of cooperation and rapproachement with Moscow. This brings great benefits, since you do not rebuke while receiving Russian gas and oil, nor with agreements in the sectors of high technology, principally in aerospace: the great industrial pride of the EU, the Airbus 380, the biggest passenger plane in the world, has parts designed and manufactured in Russia. And the Russian and European space agencies are already working on a project of a manned joint mission to the Moon.

However, there are two important points of conflict with the countries of Old Europe: the independence of the Serbian province of Kosovo (to which Russia objects), and the refusal of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe to monitor the legislative and presidential elections in Russia alleging restrictions to their work. Great Britain is a special case inside the EU, since it remains removed from many policies of the rest of the countries and nearly always unconditionally supports the USA, even when their European partners and population are opposed (as it happened with the decision to participate of the invasion of Iraq in 2003). Russian-British relations had gotten sufficiently worse enough when London gave political asylum to Boris Berezovski and Akhmed Zakayev. The first one is an entrepreneur accused of several economic crimes not only in Russia, but also in Brazil, where they have petitioned for an arrest for money laundering involving the Corinthians soccer club, and who affirmed to be planning a coup d'etat to remove Putin from power. The second is the "minister of the exterior of the Ichkeria," as the Chechen separatists call their country accused by Russia of being involved in terrorism. The death of Litvinenko and the Russian refusal to extradite Lugovoi made relations still worse.

In ex-Soviet space, Russia is criticized through the supposed "war of gas": according to the press and many western politicians, Putin increased the price for this raw material as punishment for the alignment of some countries of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS, the fragile organization that substituted the USSR in 1992) with the west (USA, principally). From the end of the USSR, Russia sold oil and gas at reduced below market prices to old Soviet countries: what it means is that the state and the Russian entrepreneurs subsidize these savings. It is true that the Ukraine and Georgia had regime changes recently, with western support, that it can appear that there is a relation between two facts; but it is difficult to explain because the price of gas sold to the Byelorussia also increased--therefore this country, under the regime of Aleksandr Lukashenko, maintains economic and strategic relations with Russia, and it is considered by the USA and the EU as "the last dictatorship in Europe."

The increase on gas has other causes: the first one is that the Russians do not want to keep on subsidizing the savings of other countries; and Monday they demanded that Russians begin to sell oil and gas at market prices to all buyers, to authorize its entry in the Worldwide Organization of Commerce (Russia is a richer country than many yet is still not a member of the market economy group, a clearly politicized situation, since countries such as China and Vietnam entered several years ago). Russia is not doing anything more than what the policies of market dictate, charging as much to internal consumers as to the external, and as much to a friendly country (Belarus) as for rivals (Ukraine and Georgia). In fact, the one who brandished a "war of gas" went to Ukraine and Byelorussia, while cutting the gas that passes through their territories of Russia for the EU, wrapping other countries in a question that does not concern them.

The oldest members of the EU tacitly recognize the need to support politics and economics involving the Russian construction projects for gas pipelines and oil pipelines under the Baltic and Black seas, that will transport gas and oil directly from Russia to Western Europe. The criticisms of the European press about the "absence of reliability" of Russian energy exports have no foundation: the construction of these submerged underwater ducts supply a Europe that does not fear a Russian cut, but yes those countries can use the gas pipelines that travel through their territories as instrument of pressure.

Relations with the United States got worse, but despite everything they were maintained relatively well thanks to the empathy between Putin and George W. Bush. When the terrorist attacks took place against the USA in September of 2001, Putin was the first foreign leader to bring his condolences to the North American president and offer help in the war against terrorism, and Bush never forgot this.

Up to today the personal declarations of the North American president on his strong Russian colleague is nearly always enthusiastic. The Russian offer was not disinterested, since Putin thought not only about benefiting from closer ties with the USA, but also legitimizing the Chechnya campaign as part of the worldwide war against the terrorism. On the basis of this new alliance, Russia had a very important participation in the downfall of the Taliban (the Islamic radical Afghan movement that controlled the country and was giving shelter to Osama Bin Laden, intellectual author of the terrorist attacks in the USA) in Afghanistan, sending arms, food, medicine and clothes to the collapsed Northern Alliance (the opposing movement to the Taliban that was controlling a small fraction of the north of Afghanistan in 2001, and the one in some months managed to conquer almost the whole country with help of Russia and of NATO). But disagreement appeared when, in the end of 2002, the USA decided to invade Iraq, and Russia was one of the strongest opponents, together with Germany and France.

Another source of conflict was the campaign begun by Washington to attract the countries of the CIS, up to that time under Russian economic and political influence. Everything indicates that the USA wants these countries also to join NATO, whose expansion appears aimed at the old members of the Warsaw Pact (initiated at the end of the Bill Clinton administration) which already reached ex-USSR countries (Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia are already members). Following this, last year the USA announced its intention to build an anti-missile defense system in Europe, more specifically in Poland and the Czech Republic, and although the North American authorities try to persuade Moscow that this system does not look to alter the strategic balance in Europe, the Russians are not convinced (any declarations of the old Czech and Polish prime ministers only confirm Moscow's suspicions, while affirming openly that this system in fact serves to protect them against a supposed Russian threat).

Ahead of this North American offensive, some of the Russian reactions ended up being counter-productive and still reflect a mentality typical of the cold war. For example, Russia put a moratorium on the treaty of conventional forces in Europe, which limits the quantity of armaments in this continent. On the other hand, this action has no practical consequence, since none of the NATO countries ratified this treaty and did not follow it, and Russia, Ukraine, Byelorussia and Kazakhstan were the only ones doing it. Also, it is a moratorium and not a cancellation of the treaty, since Moscow still has hope NATO will make it valid. But on the other hand, this type of action gives argument that they look to show Russia as a warlike country.

More intelligent was the reaction of the Russian government to the decision of the USA to construct the anti-missile system in Europe: it proposed the joint use of a radar station for monitoring missiles that Russia operates in Azerbaijan, a constructive and a mutually advantageous alternative, better than one based on the old logic of the cold war of threats and military escalation. Be that as it may, the USA practically rejected this proposal, since they prefer to have an anti-missile system exclusively theirs.

Russia and USA also are in disagreement on the Iranian nuclear program. Though Russia also is preoccupied by the possibility of this country developing atomic arms, it is less alarmist than the North Americans and they do not see problems for Iran to have power stations for generation of energy. However, in the most important question, they both agree and object to the Iranian program of enrichment of uranium, which can be used to produce nuclear weapons. There are important disagreements between Russia and the USA, but they are not insurmountable. There is no new cold war, like many people believe, because Russia has no conditions to compete economically and militarily with the USA as a global power, and it does not even intend to do it. The Russian strategy is multilateralism: to strengthen its alliances with other important countries, and so to reduce the power of US unilateral decisions without confronting them head-on.

Putin explained openly in a frank interview to Time magazine last December (available in the page of the Russian presidency). Finally, last year Putin gave great publicity to the ancient Russian claim to an important part of the Arctic Sea as an economically exclusive zone. Russia is not the only country that claims part of this region (others are the USA, Canada, Denmark and Norway), but the sending of a scientific mission to the bottom of an Arctic (also putting a titanium Russian flag) attracted the attention of worldwide public opinion and showed the technical capacity of Russia to explore and control this inhospitable region.

Problems to Resolve

Also there are immense economic and social inequalities between Moscow and the rest of the country: the urban zone of the Russian capital contributes with a third entire national GNP, having only 10 % of the population. Though the situation in many regions has improved in the last years, they are far from presenting the same energy as Moscow. This is due to an administrative system that, though it is a federation according to the constitution, in practice is too centralized. Also the number of ethnic crimes is growing against respective non-Slavic persons, principally in Moscow. For an enormous country, stretching out of the Baltic to a peace-loving one and with more than hundreds of different peoples, the centralism and the intolerance are serious threats.


It is obvious that Putin will not disappear from the political scene in next four years, but will keep on practicing an enormous influence when he in no longer president, since the population will vote in mass for the person who was designated his successor (Dmitry Medvedev, current deputy prime minister), and will do something to be formally inside the government and to be able to control it better (probably he will be a prime minister, according to his last declarations). But while doing a careful and fair study of his government, it is difficult to identify the Russian president with a tyrant thirsty for unlimited power, and the attempts to compare him with Stalin or Mussolini are absurd.

Also the conspiracy theories, defended mainly for Litvinenko and Politkovskaya, credulously repeated by many western media, do not hold up to the facts: they allege that all of the terrorist attacks in Russia in fact were plotted by the president and the FSB, with the intention to maintain an eternalwar in the Caucasus and to perpetuate himself in the power. The efficient battle against terrorism, the relative stability of the Caucasian republics and the choice of Medvedev (a man that never was part of the intelligence service or security forces, and with reputation of being a liberal) as the successor of Putin are facts that testify to the emptiness of such theories.

The surname Putin is related to the noun put, it means way, road. It is also a good metaphor to describe his government: the president did not resolve all the problems of Russia (something, by the way that is impossible in so little time), but he has placed the country on the correct path, therefore during eight years of his government Russians witnessed the stabilization of their country, the development of the economy, the rise of the standard of living, and the recuperation of its status as worldwide power. As for the democracy, there were some prompt retreats, but it cannot be considered a return to the Soviet era at all, and in general Russia continues advancing bound for a bigger degree of freedom.

The previous commissioner for human rights of the Council of Europe came to the same conclusion in 2004, while affirming that a nascent Russian democracy is still, obviously, far from being complete, but its existence and its successes cannot be denied. What was clear was the fact is that a country does not become democratic instantly, by decree of a president, as they were claiming with Yeltsin, but only through a long process to create strong and independent institutions.

Besides, a country on the edge of disintegration and civil war, with a ruined economy and increased poverty, as Russia was fewer than 10 years ago, might not be really democratic. The stability, the economic development and the improvement of the standard of living also are important for democracy, and Russia at last has managed to acquire them in the last eight years. It is quite possible that inside approximately a decade Russia already is a full and prosperous democracy, thanks in great part to Vladimir Putin.

Carlo Moiana
Buenos Aires Argentina
Translated by Lisa Karpova

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