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Foreign Correspondence: David Filipov

February 12, 1998 at 12:00 AM EDT


JIM LEHRER: Russia and Iraq. Secretary of Defense Cohen ran into some problems with his Russian counterparts today in Moscow. The Russian view of Iraq is one topic we take up in a foreign correspondence, our occasional series of conversations with reporters stationed overseas with American news organizations. Margaret Warner taped this conversation yesterday before the Cohen meetings, obviously, and also before stories broke about Russia’s allegedly helping Iraq with equipment used to make biological weapons.

MARGARET WARNER: Joining us is David Filipov, Moscow bureau chief for the Boston Globe. He’s been living in Moscow for the past eight years. David, let’s start with the big story of this week which is what’s going on vis-a-vis Iraq. The Russians have very publicly, very loudly been saying over and over again they’re opposed to U.S. or U.N. military action there. Why?

DAVID FILIPOV, Boston Globe: Well, Russia has a number of different strategic reasons for wanting to oppose the use of force at least in their–in the way they talk about it. First of all, Russia has been trying for a long time to create an identity for itself that is independent of what the U.S. is doing. It’s a way for Russia to establish prestige; it’s a way for Russia to establish itself as a great power that’s not one of the western countries. And at the same time there’s a sense in Moscow that if Russia comes out and opposes the use of force, it will present Russia to the rest of the world as a country that’s more responsible than the one superpower, the United States. But also, Russia has a lot of economic interests in Iraq. There are a lot of exploration deals with Russian oil and gas companies that the Russian companies would like to go ahead. And that can only happen when the sanctions are lifted and when the threat of military violence is out of the way. So Russia, for that reason, would like a diplomatic solution as well.

MARGARET WARNER: Now the Russian foreign minister, Yevgeny Primakov, though, has also invested a lot of personal effort going to Baghdad, trying to negotiate a way out of the standoff. Does he–do you think–or what’s the commentary in Moscow? Does he really think that Saddam will give in, or that he can somehow negotiate something here?

DAVID FILIPOV: He thinks that he can negotiate something. Primakov is a Middle East specialist. He tried to intervene in the 1991–1990-1991 Persian Gulf War, tried to stop that. He went in November and in some last-minute diplomacy was credited with solving the crisis then.


DAVID FILIPOV: In November of ’97. And for him there is a great potential personal reward for being the one to pull the crisis back from the brink, but also he’s thinking in terms of how to use Russia’s position as an ally of Iraq to increase Russia’s leverage as a country, as a power broker in the Middle East. Whether that’s something that can actually work for Russia is a different issue, but it’s definitely the strategy that Primakov is taking.

MARGARET WARNER: Help us understand Boris Yeltsin’s position on this. He made some very alarming comments about this military action could lead to a world war. He said it a couple of times. What did you make of that?

DAVID FILIPOV: Well, I’ve been here for the past week in the United States. I can’t count how many people came up to me and said, is it true that Yeltsin is going to start World War III? That’s not what he was saying, obviously. He was talking about the potential for violence in Iraq to spread. But Yeltsin tends to–tends to improvise from those cue cards he gets–he tends to say things that don’t often follow from what everybody else in the administration has been saying, and he tends to say things that make his aides have to hurry to back off from what it sounded like he was saying.

MARGARET WARNER: That didn’t used to be the case. I mean, how much in control and command do you think he is?

DAVID FILIPOV: Well, Yeltsin’s always been sort of an improv type of guy. I mean, he’s a–he’s a president who’s gone by his own knack and by the hip; he shot from the hip quite a lot during his career. So he’s sort of–the question is whether he’s in total command of his capacities, of his judgment. There are a lot of different reports–hard to tell which of them are true and which of them aren’t–about how long his work day is. There definitely are times, especially when he’s in public, in forum–international–in the international arena for a long time–where it seems like he loses control of his ability to say cohesive things for a long period of time. And that, of course, has to be a source of worry. He’s 67. He’s had a hard life. He’s had a quintuple bypass. He’s had a lot of ailments, and there’s a question of how hard he can work.

MARGARET WARNER: Does that affect his ability to really run his government?

DAVID FILIPOV: Well, Yeltsin doesn’t run his government. Yeltsin has never been a “hands-on” ruler who has a top-to-bottom grasp of what’s going on. Yeltsin sees himself as a guarantor of a certain political system. Yeltsin sees himself as the ultimate authority, as the arbiter. The government, inasmuch as it’s run, is a number of competing factions, each of whom tries to push forward their view of how things should be. Yeltsin can be called in or imposes his will sometimes–sometime he’s called in for a decision. But he’s not–he doesn’t know what’s going on today with interest rates or exchange rates. He’s a little bit away from the day to day.

MARGARET WARNER: How much access do reporters like yourself or Russian reporters have to Yeltsin? How often do they see him? Is it every day as we see the American President or not?

DAVID FILIPOV: It’s very rare that ordinary reporters and foreign correspondents see Yeltsin. He used to give a yearly or a once-every-six months press conference. But even that has been scaled back. It’s very hard to see him in person, and when you do, it’s usually with him sitting somewhere, not necessarily answering direct questions. There is a small group of Kremlin reporters who get a little bit more access. Most of our access is to aides, to the Kremlin press service, and to anyone else that will talk off the record.

MARGARET WARNER: Of course. Turning to the big story, I suppose, in Russia, which is this economic transformation, what’s your sense of how it’s going, this attempt to transform itself to a free market economy?

DAVID FILIPOV: Well, the idea that Russia was going to turn into a western liberal democracy with a market economy that works from the bottom up, service oriented, if that was the idea ever, it’s clear that that’s not the way that things have been going. It’s a very uneven system. It’s a very uneven transition. It’s a very ragged transition. Russia’s a capitalist country in the purest sense of the word because people are making an enormous amount of money. The question is how much it trickles down, which is very little. There is a great amount of people in Russia–the majority of them, overwhelming majority of people, who haven’t felt a thing from the changes that have been made.


DAVID FILIPOV: There’s a small group of business elites who have gotten 99 percent of the benefit. Even in Moscow there’s a very sharp distinction between people who made off well and people who are still living like they did 10 years ago or worse.

MARGARET WARNER: So do you think the phrase “robber barons”–that’s one of the terms thrown around.

DAVID FILIPOV: Well, it’s a stage that we in the states went through. It’s not–it’s not unexpected that this is the way that it would have gone. You hear a lot of people saying, well, if we’d done this differently, that wouldn’t have happened. The way Russia was set up under the Soviet Union as a system where very few people have control of a very large amount of resources, it’s almost hard to believe it wasn’t going to go that way. It seems that the way things have gone, it’s actually much–it’s an exaggerated form of this kind of predatory capitalism where a few people make a lot of money, while a lot of people take it very hard. That hasn’t happened in all the post Communist states, but something of what we’re seeing in Russia has happened in all of them, which is there’s a huge drop in living standards, and there’s rises in corruption, crime, unemployment.

MARGARET WARNER: So, do you see this when–I mean, do you go out and try to report on what is happening with ordinary, everyday Russians?

DAVID FILIPOV: Yes. It’s enticing to do the big story, of course, what’s happening with the big power elites and who’s moving what around and who’s getting what introduced and who’s toppling what minister, but there’s another fascinating story, which is how the Russian people are coping with the deck of cards they’ve been dealt this time. It’s an incredibly patient country, and they’re being patient again.

MARGARET WARNER: Your wife is Russian, is that right?

DAVID FILIPOV: That’s right. She’s one of the patient ones.

MARGARET WARNER: She’s one of the patient ones. Does that give you–have you found that gives you kind of a special insight?

DAVID FILIPOV: Well, her in-laws give me a professional insight because they–they live the life that I’m talking about. They’re both laid off aerospace engineers.

MARGARET WARNER: So, in other words, they were sort of very successful–

DAVID FILIPOV: Well, they weren’t rich; they weren’t ruble millionaires. They were making that 150 ruble salary, which was, you know, a few bucks a month, but they were the middle class, if you will, of the Soviet society, and they would be the middle class, given their mentality, given their interest in a stable life, a stable society, you know, growth. They would be the middle class of a capitalist Russia, but in a strange way they’ve been left aside by a system that hasn’t really figured out how to let people like that–how to allow people like that to prosper by their own initiative.

MARGARET WARNER: So, what do they do? Do they work? I mean–

DAVID FILIPOV: They try to get things done, and they’re flouted in every attempt by a repressive bureaucracy, by traffic police that still think it’s the Soviet Union, you know, these kind of things–taxes. It’s an interesting litany of things that are left over from the old system that continue to make it very difficult for people on that level–your average Ivan–to make good in Russia right now.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. Well, thanks, David, very much.