TOPICS > Politics

Time Names Russia’s Putin ‘Person of the Year’ in New Sign of Influence

December 19, 2007 at 6:40 PM EST
Loading the player...
Time magazine named Russian President Vladimir Putin its "Person of the Year" Wednesday -- the latest sign of Putin's rise as a key player on the world stage. A Time editor and a policy expert examine Putin's leadership and how he may further influence Russian politics.
LISTEN SEE PODCASTS

TRANSCRIPT

JIM LEHRER: Finally tonight, Vladimir Putin, a look at the man who is Time magazine’s choice for person of the year. Ray Suarez has our story.

RAY SUAREZ: Last week, Russian President Vladimir Putin tapped Dmitry Medvedev, a longtime protege, as his favored candidate to succeed him as president come the elections in March.

In turn, Medvedev said, if elected, he would appoint Putin to the post of prime minister, confirming the many forecasts that Putin would not go far once he left the presidency.

And the two gave a preview earlier this week of the dual-headliner act that will likely run Russia for the next four years.

These are heady times in Putin’s Russia. The Russian economy is booming. High worldwide prices for oil and gas has money pouring in. A sense of national pride has returned, after the tough transition from communism to a free-market meltdown in the 1990s that left many Russians poorer, sicker, and more skeptical of democracy.

Many Russians tell pollsters and reporters they give Putin credit for the turnaround. The former KGB agent and the prime minister assumed power New Year’s Eve 1999 from the ailing Boris Yeltsin.

In eight short years, the 55- year-old Putin has consolidated power in the Kremlin; has silenced many of his critics and opposition; and he’s effectively renationalized several large Russian companies, making trusted lieutenants, like Medvedev, captains of industry.

Perhaps most of all, Vladimir Putin has made Russia once again an influential player on the international stage.

GEORGE W. BUSH, President of the United States: I was able to get a sense of his soul.

RAY SUAREZ: After that famous friendly evaluation by President Bush in 2001, relations between the U.S. and Russia have slowly cooled. Putin vocally opposed the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, and he’s fought American-led efforts to rein in Iran.

Putin has also flexed strategic muscle on issues like missile defense. And today, Time magazine named Putin its person of the year, an internationally acknowledged affirmation of his continuing impact upon the world.

'Supreme leader'

Adi Ignatius
Time magazine
I think it was clear that he also would not wanted to have appeared to have been participating in this. I mean, he was not there to charm us or to win us over. He was aggressive; he was testy.

RAY SUAREZ: Now, two Americans who've spent time with Vladimir Putin and watch Russia closely. Adi Ignatius is deputy managing editor of Time magazine and co-author of its Putin coverage. He's also a former Moscow correspondent and recently returned from a lengthy meeting and interview with Putin.

And Cliff Kupchan has been in several sessions with the Russian leader. He's a director of the Eurasia Group, an international political risk consulting group.

Adi Ignatius, Time is quick to remind its readers every year that this is not an award. It goes to the person who, for better or worse, has had the greatest impact on the world. If that's the criteria, why Vladimir Putin?

ADI IGNATIUS, Deputy Managing Editor, Time Magazine: Well, I mean, I think you made the case in the intro to this segment. In the past eight years, Putin has done a remarkable job putting Russia back on its feet at a huge cost. He is anti-democratic. You did not want to stand in his way, or you're in trouble.

The culmination was, this year, his party won a decisive election, and he really has set up the mechanism for himself to really be Russia's supreme leader after his second and final presidential term expires next year. It looks like the post will be prime minister, whatever. He clearly will be supreme leader, maybe leader for life. And that's really what we're acknowledging here.

RAY SUAREZ: When you were part of the Time team that recently visited him in his private residence, was he aware that this designation was coming? And what did he make of it?

ADI IGNATIUS: Well, you know, we never tell anyone that they are the person of the year. I mean, we usually have several tracks going and make the decision very late in the game ourselves.

I think it was clear that he also would not wanted to have appeared to have been participating in this. I mean, he was not there to charm us or to win us over. He was aggressive; he was testy.

He had a lot of sort of points to make about America, so we didn't even reach the topic. There was sort of too much to talk about.

RAY SUAREZ: Cliff Kupchan, do you think Vladimir Putin was the person who, for better or worse, had the greatest impact on the world in 2007?

CLIFF KUPCHAN, The Eurasia Group: I think Vladimir Putin had extraordinary impact in 2007. He's presided over the resurgence of Russia as an economic and political power. His country was flat on its back. Now, it's just flat back.

I mean, look, he's brought Russian business global, 6 percent or 7 percent growth. He was a key player on the Iran crisis. They've slowed down Kosovo for worse. Russia matters again. That matters to the U.S.

Profiling Putin

Cliff Kupchan
Eurasia Group
He's one of the smartest people I've ever met. I mean, we go three to five hours. He has no notes, no advisers, no breaks. And from pipeline diameters to the minutiae of foreign policy, he doesn't miss a beat. Now, that's intellect.

RAY SUAREZ: How much time have you spent with the president of Russia?

CLIFF KUPCHAN: Three meetings of three to five hours each, I would say.

RAY SUAREZ: And what would you tell people who say, "Well, what was it like?" What do you think is most important to understand Vladimir Putin?

CLIFF KUPCHAN: First, this guy is really, really smart. He's one of the smartest people I've ever met. I mean, we go three to five hours. He has no notes, no advisers, no breaks. And from pipeline diameters to the minutiae of foreign policy, he doesn't miss a beat. Now, that's intellect.

I think of Mr. Putin as sort of a battle of intellect versus instinct. His intellect is Grade A. His instinct, well, kind of a Soviet spy. He doesn't trust what he can't control, doesn't trust democracy. We've seen that. He doesn't really trust markets to solve his economic problems, so it's a fascinating mixed bag.

RAY SUAREZ: Adi Ignatius, you heard Cliff Kupchan mention his KGB background, rising from a KGB officer in East Germany to first prime minister, then president, and perhaps prime minister again. Is he one of a number of people from the security services who are now in control of the new Russia?

ADI IGNATIUS: He brought some people with him. He brought people with him from St. Petersburg. He brought people with him from the KGB apparatus, now the FSB.

You know, what's happening there is he is, you know, returning in some ways to an almost Soviet level of state control.

And yet, you know, markets -- it is essentially a free market economy. It's not unlike China, where you have the ability to do a lot in the economic sphere. You have the ability to do very little politically. And, like China, corruption is really rife.

U.S.-Russia relations

Adi Ignatius
Time magazine
[H]e got very angry, sort of veins popping and said, "You know, I don't think these are misconceptions. I think these are intentional distortions.'

RAY SUAREZ: Did he have the impression that the United States was a rival in the rest of the world?

ADI IGNATIUS: It was very interesting. At one point we asked him, you know, we said, "Look, if you could correct any Western, American misconceptions of Russia, what would they be?" Pretty softball question.

And he got very angry, sort of veins popping and said, "You know, I don't think these are misconceptions. I think these are intentional distortions. And you people seem to view the Russians as uncivilized, that we just came down from trees, that we need to wash the dirt out of our hair and beards."

It was very revealing, this kind of chip on the shoulder that -- you know, Yeltsin, it was very important for him to have the West's stamp of approval. Putin doesn't feel the same way. He is doing his own thing. But clearly, there's still this chip on his shoulder about acceptance or lack of in the great nations of the Western world.

RAY SUAREZ: Cliff Kupchan, was President Putin misjudged by the two American presidents who've dealt with him while in office?

CLIFF KUPCHAN: I don't think he was fully and accurately appraised. This is a guy with a great deal of pride who I think does care about his country, and essentially has a "my way or the highway" approach to international relations.

He is defining Russia's interests in a very Kissingerian, realist, hardball way, and he's going to go after them. And I don't think either the administration I served in -- the Clinton administration -- or the Bush administration really got their arms around how serious a player this guy really is.

RAY SUAREZ: There have been points of conflict over Iran and its attempts to enrich nuclear fuel, over whether to put missile control bases in what used to be Warsaw Pact Poland and Czechoslovakia.

Are the two countries working it out? Is there a new way that Putin's Russia and whoever is going to be the next president and this current president are finally learning to live with each other?

CLIFF KUPCHAN: I think the relationship is stagnating. I think a major challenge for the next U.S. administration would be to design a relationship that serves U.S. interests, that the U.S. gets something out of it.

Right now, I think there's a lot of rhetoric that's not serving anybody's interest, and I think that's got to change.

Stability vs. civil liberties

Cliff Kupchan
Eurasia Group
So, you know, now I think if you ask Russians, you know, probably 70 percent would say -- would support Putin, which is implicitly saying, 'We will take this trade-off, stability at the cost of certain freedoms. We can live with that.'

RAY SUAREZ: Adi Ignatius, the Time coverage that profiles the Russian president mentions that he has put stability above freedom. Would he put it that way? And do Russians approve?

CLIFF KUPCHAN: I don't think he'd put it that way. I mean, he often said that Russia is a democracy. When we criticize what we found to be, you know, undemocratic procedures, he would throw it back at us and say, "Well, you know, you have the Electoral College, and that is a big mess, and that's not exactly one man-one vote."

You know, the Russian people, if you can generalize, by and large seem to buy this swap, that basically, "We will give you increased stability."

And you have to remember where Russia came from in the 1990s, when there were experiments in democratic reforms, in economic reforms. You know, there was going to be this sort of magic of the kind of Western system put on old Soviet Russia. And it didn't work.

So, you know, now I think if you ask Russians, you know, probably 70 percent would say -- would support Putin, which is implicitly saying, "We will take this trade-off, stability at the cost of certain freedoms. We can live with that."

RAY SUAREZ: Well, Cliff Kupchan, Vladimir Putin will leave office at a young and vigorous and healthy 55. We're used to Soviet leaders being old and infirm and having their last date being with the undertaker. So can we assume that he'll be a power in Russia for a long time to come?

CLIFF KUPCHAN: He'll be a power in Russia for a good number of years. The odds are very high that he'll be Russia's next prime minister. In that role, he'll be the senior partner, in sort of a tandem rule.

In my gut, I think Mr. Putin is adopting a wait-and-see attitude here. He'll see how Mr. Medvedev does.

My impression, in previous meetings, in previous years -- not this year, when he was all full of power and "I'm going to stay on" -- but in previous years, sometimes he seemed tired, like, "I just want to go home and be a former president."

I think he'll see how Mr. Medvedev does. Medvedev's not a bad choice. He's a liberal, the most liberal of the candidates that were available. I think Putin's instincts, Mr. Kudrin, the finance minister, a real liberal, getting stronger and stronger.

I think he'll wait and see, and maybe he'll stay around.

RAY SUAREZ: Cliff Kupchan, Adi Ignatius, thank you both.

ADI IGNATIUS: Thank you.