Foreign Correspondence: John Daniszewski
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TERENCE SMITH: And our correspondent is John Daniszewski, Moscow bureau chief for the Los Angeles Times. John, welcome home.
JOHN DANISZEWSKI: Thank you.
TERENCE SMITH: Tell us a little about the Russia of Vladimir Putin. What’s it like and what’s he like?
JOHN DANISZEWSKI: Well, it’s a much different country than it was a year-and- a-half ago, when he took over. It’s a more orderly country. The oligarchs have been brought under control. The regions are becoming more in line with Kremlin policies. The Duma is no longer going off in its own direction, but it’s following script written in the Kremlin. So he has introduced a modicum of order. In that way he’s delivered something that the Russian people seem to have wanted, that he’s a counterweight to the chaos that they were seeing earlier in the 1990s.
TERENCE SMITH: You mentioned he’s been in office for 18 months now. Is he popular with the Russian people?
JOHN DANISZEWSKI: By all accounts he’s highly popular — 60-70% approval ratings. People are just so happy to have a President who seems to know what he’s doing, who’s not stumbling, who’s not saying foolish things, who seems controlled and seems to have a game plan.
TERENCE SMITH: Is it clear to you where he wants to take Russia?
JOHN DANISZEWSKI: No. That’s really the question mark. He clearly is a person who comes out of the KGB, the FSB. He has, to me, the demeanor and sometimes the inscrutability of a hard-nosed policeman. It’s clear he wants order. It’s clear he wants economic liberalization, but I’m not sure how he really feels about political liberalization, human rights, freedom of the press, and things like that.
TERENCE SMITH: For the last couple of months we’ve been treated to this sort of love-fest between President Putin and President George W. Bush . What do you make of that?
JOHN DANISZEWSKI: It’s really striking. I think it was a surprise to all of us. These two men seemed like they were on a collision course.
TERENCE SMITH: In terms of their policies.
JOHN DANISZEWSKI: In terms of their policy, especially Bush ‘s plans for national missile defense, but also the criticisms of Russia for proliferation and so on. But when they got together, they seemed to have hit it off. They seemed to see each other as being cohorts of the same generation, both grappling with big international problems, and i think Putin really likes to be seen as being on the same plane as Bush , because that means that Russia is still a superpower.
TERENCE SMITH: I know that there was a news conference not too long ago in Moscow. President Putin was asked about President Bush. Does he give an opinion of President Bush?
JOHN DANISZEWSKI: Well, he said… It was sort of remarkable. He said he found him very sentimental. He said, “I don’t know if i should be saying that, but this is a man who is not afraid to show his emotions.” To me it was funny he said that, because Putin is the opposite. He’s really sort of a tough guy. I don’t know if he thinks that Bush is a softy that can be pushed around or what that really meant.
TERENCE SMITH: Sentimental? What does that….
JOHN DANISZEWSKI: I think he was referring… They were talking about their families. They were talking about who they named children after, where they live, and he seemed to be looking forward to his visit to Texas, to the ranch.
TERENCE SMITH: The… At the same time, in terms of substance, President Putin seems to have come around to George W. Bush ‘s idea of reviewing and perhaps amending or even replacing the 1972 ABM Treaty. So are we to take that as something that is going to happen, or is the jury still out?
JOHN DANISZEWSKI: I think that… I think the policy that’s developing in Russia is that they want to be able to reduce their offensive nuclear weapons force in lockstep with the United States– in other words, that they don’t want to be forced by their lack of finances to unilaterally lower their level of weapons. This is a big lever that the Bush administration has, and tit for tat: If President Bush really wants national missile defense, there’s probably a deal that can be made there.
TERENCE SMITH: He’s come around to that, and it might well emerge.
JOHN DANISZEWSKI: I think it might well emerge. It was a real surprise.
TERENCE SMITH: What is it like for you as an American correspondent to cover the Kremlin these days, to try to cover President Putin? I assume your access to him is limited, to say the least.
JOHN DANISZEWSKI: It’s somewhat limited a lot of times. You can always reach someone in the Kremlin who can tell you what the President is up to or what he’s thinking, but it’s, of course, very hard to get to see him yourself. But he does seem to be on a charm offensive these days, and meeting with reporters more often, so we have hope.
TERENCE SMITH: Meanwhile, the war in Chechnya continues as a festering state. What is going on there and what is it like to try to cover that?
JOHN DANISZEWSKI: Well, the parallels to Vietnam I think are enormous. It’s just a tragic situation. Going to Chechnya is one of the scariest things I’ve done in a long time. You don’t know where the enemy is. You don’t know where the landmines are. You don’t know whether you should be afraid of the Russian soldiers or the Islamic militants. And the people there live… You wouldn’t believe it. They’re just huddled up trying… Scratching to survive…no light, no… limited food, limited water, no consumer goods, no ways to earn income. They’re just struggling to live. They have almost no place they can go. They can’t go to Russia. They can go as refugees, but that’s a miserable life. They’re stuck there between these two foes who are just doing terribly brutal things to each other.
TERENCE SMITH: And when you’re there as a correspondent, an American, western correspondent, do you get any protection from either side?
JOHN DANISZEWSKI: No. You’re hiding too, in a way. You’re hiding from the Russians and you’re riding from the extremists.
TERENCE SMITH: I think you were in a building, weren’t you, when there was shooting nearby?
JOHN DANISZEWSKI: Right. I was staying with this family that very kindly took us and fed us. They had a house that was behind high walls, so it was low profile.
TERENCE SMITH: In Grozny.
JOHN DANISZEWSKI: In Grozny. I felt safe there. One day when we were heading back to the house, there was a shooting between some… A shoot-out, really, between a jeep full of Russians and a car filled with Chechen rebels. After that, the Russian army just poured in there, going house to house, arresting people. And it just seemed like it might be wiser at that point to leave town. Fortunately in Grozny there’s a network of back roads that somehow avoid the checkpoints, and we could….
TERENCE SMITH: But it remains a political, a great political problem, does it not, for President Putin?
JOHN DANISZEWSKI: I mentioned at the news conference he was very adroit in answering questions and seemed very calm on most issues. But when he talks about Chechnya, it’s a whole different matter. He came to office as the man who was going to fix up Chechnya, and he has… His voice gets higher. He moves his hand. He gets angry whenever the topic comes up. His belief is that we in the West, or particularly we in the western press, don’t understand the threat that Russia is facing there.
TERENCE SMITH: Finally, and briefly, let me ask you about one other headline we’ve seen repeatedly, which is about the strained relationship between President Putin and the Russian media. He and others moved to take over NTV, the independent television. What’s going on there and what does it say?
JOHN DANISZEWSKI: Well, i think it all has to do with the falling out between Putin and the owner of NTV, Gusinsky. And after that, the prosecutor started investigating, the accountants came in, they searched their records. They found financial malfeasance, which is not surprising because i think it exists in almost every Russian business. I don’t know if it was because they were afraid of a free press or for political reasons, but it’s hard to think that it was simply a legal matter, the way they went about it. For instance, when the journalists left NTV and went to another station, TV-6, suddenly that station started developing legal problems.
TERENCE SMITH: And does it have a chilling effect either on the Russian media or the western, or both?
JOHN DANISZEWSKI: I think so — Not on the western media, but, in fact, there are no longer any national television stations that are not controlled by the state. Although the new NTV says it’s independent, it’s simply not aggressive in pursuing stories, particularly about Chechnya.
TERENCE SMITH: John Daniszewski, thank you very much.
JOHN DANISZEWSKI: Thank you.