TOPICS > Nation

Dateline: Moscow

May 27, 1998 at 12:00 AM EDT
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MARGARET WARNER: Our foreign correspondent tonight is Daniel Williams, who’s been reporting from Moscow for the Washington Post since July. Before that, he served as diplomatic correspondent and Rome correspondent for the Post, and before that, he reported from China, the Middle East, and Latin America for the Los Angeles Times and the Miami Herald. Welcome, Dan.

DANIEL WILLIAMS, Washington Post: Good to be here.

MARGARET WARNER: First of all, let me ask you about something-the debate that took place here that involved Russia in the past couple of weeks over NATO expansion. During the debate senators from both sides were talking about how the Russians really feel. How do the Russians really feel?

DANIEL WILLIAMS: I’ve never been to a party or a market or a dinner or had a conversation in which when the person found out I’m from the United States they said why are you expanding NATO. It’s just not on everybody’s lips. In fact, it’s not on the lips of everyday people. It is on the lips of the Russian elite and the foreign policy elite, and it plays into a debate between people who want Russia to go western and people who think Russia is fundamentally different from the West and perhaps an opponent of the West. And those people worry about NATO expansion. The westernizers say, what do we care, the closer NATO gets to Moscow, the better, as far as we’re concerned. But in the foreign policy establishment now the non-westernizers are in the ascendancy, and so they don’t like it, and that’s what you hear most out of Moscow.

MARGARET WARNER: And is the non-westernizing tendency-also, we’re seeing in what they did vis-a-vis say Iraq or more recently when India detonated the atomic tests-sort of saying, well, we regret this but we’re not ready to support sanctions?

DANIEL WILLIAMS: Yes. That’s right. The era of what used to be called new thinking, where Russia and the United States-or Russia and the West would move in tandem on all issues is gone. The Russian foreign ministry now headed by Yevgeny Primakov is-very much wants Russia to be a great power but on its own to do what it feels is in its interest. And he’s doing that by rebuilding ties with a lot of old friends. And who were these old friends? Well, some of these old friends were Saddam Hussein and some were Qaddafi in Libya. They’re in India. They’re in Cuba. They’re in these places. That’s where he’s starting. Again, the westernizers don’t like that because, of course, in this list of old friends, there are some people that the westernizers think are bad, much as Washington thinks they’re bad–like Saddam Hussein. Why did they want to renew friendly ties with Saddam Hussein? However, that’s not Primakov’s point of view-and that he thinks that Russia ought to sell arms, they ought to assert themselves in ways that they haven’t asserted themselves since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. Let’s turn to what’s going on in Russia, itself. During the debate last month over Yeltsin wanting to have his new prime minister and so on, there was a lot of commentary here about what it would mean for economic reform. Tell me this: Do the Russian people feel-are political struggles like that on their lips when you run into them? Do they feel that the politics at that level matter to them in their lives?

DANIEL WILLIAMS: Well, yes, they think it could matter to them. In fact, they would like it to matter to them. The intrigues, which so fascinate the West and so fascinate reporters like me-what-why did Yeltsin do this, was he sick, was he drunk, why did he hire this guy out of the blue-that doesn’t interest them as much. What interests them is: Will this man be able to deliver the mail? Will he be able to pay wages to people whose wages are always behind? Will he be able to get shakedown artists and thugs off the back of small business people who are trying to open businesses? Will he be able to get-reduce tax burdens on people? Will he be able to get social services functioning, hospitals, and schools functioning in places like Tivar or Omsk or Tomsk or wherever in a way that people can go get medical care when they need it? So, yes, they look forward to somebody being able to do that. Sweeping reforms, the transferring of properties, this is meaning less to people now. They would like government to work. And if Mr. Kiriyenko can perform that, I think people will welcome him. But I don’t think there’s great confidence that he’ll be able to deliver.

MARGARET WARNER: Well, what’s-your description implies that they don’t think right now that economic reform or the move to capitalism is working for them. How do they see it? Is this their view of capitalism, that it doesn’t work, or it just rewards the few?

DANIEL WILLIAMS: Well, they have only a partial view of capitalism because they’ve only seen it partially work. But what they don’t see is why should-capitalism, fine, but why do social structures have to break down? Why do cops have to shake you down when you make an illegal-or illegal left turn? Why do you have to pay-is that capitalism? No. I think they separate the issues. Capitalism fine–you hear very little, frankly, except among older people, oh, we want to go back-and certainly you almost–you very rarely hear it from a young person. But they would like now government to act like government, police to act like police, criminals to get off the street, paychecks to arrive on time, pensions to be paid, soldiers to be paid. The basic functionings-in no capitalist country do you say we have capitalism, but everything else isn’t going to work. Only in Russia has it developed so far that way, where, yes, there’s been a massive transfer of property, centralized planning is out, but then the government also in a way kind of collapsed, and that hasn’t been rebuilt. And I think Yeltsin has hired what we would think of as a city manager, except the city manager for all of Russia. Yeltsin is the mayor. He wants this guy to manage. He wants him to deliver.

MARGARET WARNER: Tell me about-tell us about these new Russians, the ones who really have profited, the oligarchs, the robber barons, we hear all these different terms.

DANIEL WILLIAMS: Well, the new Russian, I mean, he’s already a folkloric figure-the new Russian, of course, made money and made it quick and made lots of it. And he may have gone by-he may have been on the runway of an airport when the Soviet Union collapsed and maybe there was an airplane there and he started an airline.

MARGARET WARNER: Amazingly-

DANIEL WILLIAMS: Amazingly, there’s an airplane there, and he names it, you know, Uralski Airline or something, and there’s lots of those kinds of companies. People took assets and turned them into businesses. Of course, the super rich-would open banks, he gets money from the government, reinvests this money in government loans, and just make money off the money. The new Russian as a character, however, is something-he’s a person who spends, he’s a person who’s generous, he’s a person who has awful taste, and he’s a person who is rich and just wants everybody to know it. So he wears lots of Italian clothes. He buys those gigantic gauchos and sort of Kuwaiti-style architecture. He’s a flaunter. And there’s a certain amount of envy, obviously. But, in a way, it’s almost-it’s kind of good-natured. I mean, people make jokes about the new Russians, and people I think wish they could be new Russians.

MARGARET WARNER: You wrote one story that particularly fascinated me or interested me, which is about this-a Russian woman crime writer, kind of an Agatha Christie of Russia-Marina, I think was her name.

DANIEL WILLIAMS: Marinana.

MARGARET WARNER: Yes. Tell me about her. Tell us about her and why she’s so popular.

DANIEL WILLIAMS: Yes. She’s a fascinating woman because she was a cop. She was a criminologist. She researched crime more than cracked down on crime. And she’s popular because, of course, she has captured this atmosphere of Moscow and Moscow, in particular, in which the vision between criminality and legality is rather blurred. Everyone can be a criminal, or everyone can be upstanding. And that is, and she’s captured the bizarreness of present day Moscow. I mean, my favorite story of hers is one where some awful scientist somewhere has created a ray gun, which directed on Muscovites makes them begin to kill each other. And, of course, you feel that maybe there is a ray gun in Moscow, because there are all sorts of grizzly murders and so on happening. She captures a kind of unease people have with the vast changes because Moscow, for all its new prosperity, is kind of a sinister place. It’s a place where strange murders happen, and none of them are resolved, even prominent murders. So she deals with this in a way that Russians can feel like her chief investigator-it’s a woman heroine, in fact, –who thinks about these things, and she resolves the crimes, even if she doesn’t understand them, and that Russians are going about their lives in a way that they don’t really understand what’s going on, but, you know, they proceed.

MARGARET WARNER: You said you also sort of tapped into the Russian fascination with crime.

DANIEL WILLIAMS: Well, of course, they have a long history of this from Dostoyevsky Crime and Punishment on. They-Russians in these years are both put off by the awful crimes they see around them but also they’re fascinated. On television there’s sort of fabulous shows, reality-based chase shows in which the cameramen show up at a scene of the crime and take pictures of, you know, mangled bodies and mangled people. There’s a quiz show in which the contestant robs a car, and he’s pursued by the police through the streets of Moscow. If he can elude them for a half hour, he gets the car.

MARGARET WARNER: Is this real?

DANIEL WILLIAMS: Yes. It’s sort of real. The cops-there are certain–the cops can’t use all the tools at their command. For instance, as I was told by the producers, they can’t shoot either the guy who’s driving or the wheels under his car. But, yes, it is a sort of a stunt show in which if he can elude for long enough with certain restrictions on the police, yes, he gets a car. Now, this puts the audience in the position of cheering for a thief. So it’s kind of a double message here. Everyone’s horrified by crime, but, you know, I hope he gets that car.

MARGARET WARNER: You’ve reported, as we just reported, all over the world and the Middle East and Latin America, and so on. How does being a Moscow correspondent compare to those?

DANIEL WILLIAMS: I would say Russia is the most unpredictable place I’ve ever reported on in peacetime at least, because nothing seems quite-no story is quite straight. For instance, when Yeltsin, himself, dismissed his cabinet, okay, fine, this is not so unusual; it happens in lots of countries. Only, he didn’t have a prime minister in mind. And he himself tried to take the reins of power, only to be told a half hour later, whoops, that’s illegal, and so he rooted around and found Mr. Kiriyenko to become Prime Minister. This doesn’t happen in many countries. And most stories in Russia are sort of like that. There’s always an extra twist to the most routine affair.

MARGARET WARNER: Well, thank you, Dan, very much.

DANIEL WILLIAMS: Okay. Thanks.