A new documentary series explores the Putin era and raises questions about where he would take Russia in the coming years.by Barbara Frye 24 January 2012
About halfway through a new BBC series on Vladimir Putin’s Russia, an American diplomat says his boss, President George W. Bush, told the Russian president he had “a historic opportunity to move Russia permanently to the West, by building the institutions of a democratic state with checks and balances, build independent political parties, build an independent media, build an independent judiciary and the rule of law.”
It must have tried Putin’s not considerable patience. “Our partners kept lecturing us on our internal affairs,” says Sergei Prikhodko, Putin’s national security adviser. “What they said was far removed from reality.”
The exchange stands out because, in unspooling the last decade, the four-hour documentary Russia, Putin, and the West chronicles a series of opportunities lost amid a clash of world views.
First of those missed chances would be Putin’s failure to tackle corruption. Despite an early confrontation over tax-dodging and influence-peddling – during which, according to one witness, Putin had the oligarchs nearly hiding under the table in fright – the president wasn’t quite willing to muck out the stables. In fact, filmmakers Norma Percy, Brian Lapping, and Paul Mitchell date the start of Mikheil Khodorkovsky’s troubles to a public presentation he made to Putin on corruption that included criticism of a recent deal by Rosneft, the state oil company.
The second, closely linked failure would be to diversify and modernize Russia’s economy. Though it wisely set aside some of the windfall from spiraling oil prices for a rainy day, the Kremlin still saw $1 trillion wiped off the value of the Russian stock exchange during the financial crisis. A country as fantastically wealthy as the new Russia should have been making investments in education and infrastructure, the filmmakers suggest. Instead, when oil prices tanked, Putin had to rely on a combination of huge bailouts and crude threats to strong-arm factory owners into keeping workers on the payroll. And even that didn’t work.
Then there was the failure to avoid war in Georgia. Though Moscow does not get all the blame – Colin Powell describes Putin nemesis Mikheil Saakasvhili as impulsive – Russia’s insistence that Georgia accept it as a guarantor of a no-use-of-force pledge beggars belief. In the conditions before the August 2008 conflict, it was a lot to ask either side to hold its fire. But Tbilisi was willing to sign if international troops monitored the agreement, a reasonable proviso that Moscow would not accept.
Putin and Russia are not the only ones who missed opportunities, the documentary shows. The Russian president sagely warned Bush early on that Pakistan was feeding insurgents into Afghanistan and was “going to blow up” on his watch, according to Condoleeza Rice.
And Putin made some difficult, smart decisions out of the gate, including slashing the tax rate to 15 percent to encourage compliance and allowing land ownership.
Looking back on the past 10 years, it’s certainly not a decade lost. There were 24 million fewer Russians living in poverty in 2010 than in 2000, for instance, and there were proportionately many more students enrolled in higher education.
But on the international scene, Russia finds itself in an oddly similar place as it did a decade ago. It has won the respect it craved, though almost purely through the use of its energy resources. You have to wonder: how many friends would Moscow have tomorrow if the world discovered a substitute for oil and natural gas overnight?
At times, we see the Kremlin engaging in a sour kind of diplomacy that’s hard to imagine in most Western capitals. At the beginning of Bush’s term, the United States expelled Russian spies after Moscow, according to Powell’s uncontested account, exceeded a “gentleman’s agreement” over the number of intelligence operatives each country would tolerate in the other’s diplomatic corps.
In return, the Kremlin expelled not only American spies but “clean diplomats,” then-Foreign Minister Sergei Ivanov recounts, in order to “create chaos” at the U.S. Embassy.
Several years later, on one of Rice’s trips to Moscow to see Putin, Ivanov recounts that when the time for their meeting came, his boss looked at his watch and said with a grin, “What’s the hurry? Let’s put on a show.” Rice was left to cool her heels for hours. Seemingly unflappable, she recounts being driven, much later, to a country lodge where a birthday party was in progress, and where Putin awaited.
Quick to see slights, Putin was determined that Russia would not be pushed around. But the demands of a younger generation that are so much in evidence now – to have a country that is governed cleanly and fairly, and, like many European capitals, holds a magnetic attraction for the rest of the world – shows how puny Putin’s vision for Russia has been. And how much of his time in office has been wasted.
You could argue, of course, that Putin’s stabilization of the economy is what gave those young people the luxury of ideals in the first place. Or you could argue, as Russia, Putin, and the West does, that “the global recession revealed that Russia’s economic success had been more the result of high oil prices than the years of Putin’s presidency.”
At the annual Valdai club meeting with intellectuals and journalists in November, Putin said he wanted to become president again because Russia had not yet developed strong institutions and a mature political system. Presumably those would be the same institutions that Bush urged him to build – real political parties and independent media and judiciary – back in 2005.
Many in the West still don’t understand how Putin consolidated his power, kneecapped the opposition, and let corruption flourish while maintaining enviable approval ratings. This documentary, focused as it is on foreign affairs, will not enlighten them.
It does, though, offer a few revelations. One is that the Kremlin was right to accuse British spies in 2006 of using a fake rock with a camera inside to pass along intelligence. Another is that Moscow opened a back channel to communicate with Viktor Yushchenko when he was running for president of Ukraine against the Kremlin-backed Viktor Yanukovych. And that before the United States and its allies went to war in Afghanistan in 2001, the Taliban approached Moscow about an alliance against the Americans. Ivanov’s response alone makes the series worth watching.
My preview copy was made before protests erupted over the parliamentary elections. The filmmakers tacked on a new beginning and I understand intend to alter the last hour as well. The version I saw doesn’t deal with the generational divide that seems to be opening up over the fate of Russia. I once heard an EU diplomat say, with regard to the competition for influence between the EU and Russia, “We have a way of life. They have tanks.”
Young Russians now seem to want “a way of life.” That’s worth thinking about while watching Russia, Putin, and the West. Can the next iteration of Putin and Co. – who invented a non-democratic democracy and saw nothing wrong with admitting that they worried the Americans would start “democracy promotion” in Central Asia if they got a toehold there after 9/11 – give it to them?
Russia, Putin, and the West airs Thursdays at 9 p.m. through 9 February on BBC 2 in the UK. It is also available to view on the BBC’s iplayer and will be available for purchase after broadcast from Brook Lapping in London. It will also air or has aired in 12 other countries, most in Western Europe.