When you took over the Russia portfolio, the great transition of the Soviet
Union had been going on for a year. What were your own hopes and
He is U.S. Deputy Secretary of State and has specialized in Russia affairs in
both his government and journalism careers.
1993 was the beginning of the post-Soviet, post-Communist period, in Russia.
Among Russians living in Russia, and those abroad, there was a combination of
high hopes and deep uncertainty. I can remember one of several trips that I
made there, going back to see somebody I had been visiting since the 1960s.
What struck me most was the mixed feelings, and deep relief that the Soviet
period was truly--and they hoped, finally--over. There were high hopes for the
kinds of people who seemed to have emerged as the leaders of Russia, and for
Boris Yeltsin in particular. But there was a lot of apprehension about what
There was also what turned out to be quite an insightful impression and concern
about political culture. This is a country that had not had a political
culture--it's certainly not a political culture of democracy or civil
society--or to put it differently, had exactly the wrong political culture.
That had come tumbling down, virtually overnight, with nothing to take its
And that would create a vacuum. Nature abhors a vacuum, human nature abhors a
vacuum. What forces would emerge to fill that vacuum? There was a lot of
concern that some of those forces would be quite ugly, and that's what we
have seen over the ensuing seven or eight years. We've seen the good, the bad,
the ugly, and the ambiguous, all contending for the future of Russia, with
Boris Yeltsin presiding over that struggle, with varying degrees of success.
What did you think of Boris Yeltsin the first time you met him?
He came to Washington during our own presidential campaign back in 1992. He
met with President Bush, and also with somebody he considered to be an
implausible candidate for the presidency, Bill Clinton. He radiated confidence
and energy in those days, which was not always the case later on.
President Clinton developed a fascination with him as a political animal, if I
can put it that way. As soon as President Clinton won the election in this
country, he advanced great curiosity about what was going on in Russia. Those
were the days when President Yeltsin was battling with the Soviet-era
parliament. The battle turned ugly during the first year of the Clinton
President Clinton was very interested in how somebody who came out of a
communist totalitarian system, and indeed had thrived in the old Soviet system,
would adjust to the workings of democracy. Once President Clinton was in
office, the first time that they met was in Vancouver, in early 1993. The word
again that comes to mind is great confidence, forcefulness, command,
personality --that's what Boris Yeltsin radiated.
I've been told by others who observed the two of them in Vancouver that they
discovered in many ways they were very much alike--physically--backslapping,
handshaking, and that sort of thing.
Yes. President Yeltsin loved the idea that when the leaders of these two
countries got together, there was no problem they couldn't solve--including
problems that had brought their governments, their bureaucracy, as he liked to
put it, to an impasse. That refrain really continued throughout the next seven
years. "Bill," he'd say, calling him "Bill," "when you and I get together and
agree on something, there's no problem that we can't resolve." It turned out
to be a bit of an overstatement. But it's also the case that the relationship
that developed between President Clinton and President Yeltsin did enable two
governments to solve some problems that might otherwise have been insoluble,
and very much to the benefit of American national interests.
I'm thinking in particular of the issue that was front and center--that of
Russian military forces in the three Baltic states, which had gone from being
illegally annexed parts of the Soviet Union to being independent countries.
Yet they still had Russian forces on their territory.
In the Vancouver meeting in 1993, President Yeltsin was clearly thinking about
the problem of what to do with these soldiers, and especially their officers,
if they were brought back into Russia. He asked President Clinton for help on
finding housing for them, and that was indeed one of the line items in the
Economic Assistance Program that we had back in those days.
But there was a lot of resistance in Russia to ever getting those forces out of
the Baltic states. And it was only because President Clinton and President
Yeltsin continued to work on the issue over the next year and a half that
Russian forces did withdraw in the latter part of 1994.
There were a number of tough arms control issues. There was the development of
a cooperative relationship between NATO, which was enlarging and taking in new
members contrary to the wishes of Russia, and the Russian Federation, what we
called the NATO Russia Founding Act. That could only have come about because
of presidential interaction.
They needed to find terms on which Russian forces would be able to participate
in peacekeeping on Bosnia, even though the overall military responsibility for
the operation would be with NATO. Again, former Secretary of Defense Bill
Perry did heroic and critical work with his Russian counterpart. The decisions
had to be taken at a presidential level, and I think were a direct result of
the chemistry developed between President Clinton and President Yeltsin.
The last example I would cite had to do what in many ways has been the toughest
test of US-Russian relations in the last seven-plus years, and that is Kosovo.
When it became necessary because of the brutality and stubbornness of Milosevic
for NATO to actually use military force, it was a very bitter pill for the
Russians to swallow.
Yet Russia participated in the diplomacy that brought that war to an end on
terms that met NATO's bottom lines. And Russia also agreed to participate on
the ground in the peacekeeping operation in Kosovo. Again, it's hard to
imagine that even being possible, were it not for the relationship between
President Clinton and President Yeltsin.
Back in 1993 at your confirmation hearings, you described Yeltsin as the
personification of Russian reform. Tell me what you meant by that, both in
terms of Yeltsin and what the definition of reform was.
What I meant was very simply that he was the president of Russia, who, by the
way, had emerged in open elections, even while he was still part of the Soviet
Union. He was a reformer. He believed very much in dismantling the old
structures of Soviet communist power, putting in place democracy, market
economics, and engaging cooperatively rather than confrontationally with the
West. The Russian people invested a lot of hopes in him. So did many of us
in the West.
And while the years that came after that were full of setbacks, disappointments
and moments of real tension, I think that, in many respects, the Russia that
President Yeltsin passed onto his successor President Putin has come a very
long way. It hasn't been an easy or straight road. And it's not going to be
an easy or straight road into the future. But it's a very different Russia
than the one that Boris Yeltsin grew up in, the one where he was a Potentate of
the Soviet Communist Party. And in many, though not all respects, it's a
In what ways is it a better place?
It's a better place, among other things, because it's a democracy. Now, it is
not the most advanced democracy on the face of the earth, but the Russians have
gotten into the habit of voting. They now choose their legislators, the people
who make their laws--unfortunately, not always very quickly and not always the
right law. But nonetheless, they go to the polls to elect the legislators in
levels of participation, of voter turnout, that would be the envy of other
countries. And twice in the post- Soviet period they've had a chance to elect
It's a much more pluralistic society and political system. There are different
voices, many of which are quite disagreeable, saying ugly things. But there
are other voices championing values and ideals that we hold dear, and that we
hope will prevail there over time. They have a free press. It's a whole
universe of difference in terms of the way the press operates from what it was
back during Soviet times.
There is also not anything like the ideological compulsion to lock horns with
the United States and with the West on every single issue, just on principle,
which was the case when we were ideological rivals on a global basis. But I do
want to stress there are lots and lots of problems, reasons for concern, and
reasons for uncertainty over how it will turn out.
What are those problems, and what are your biggest concerns?
For one thing, democracy in and of itself--which is to say the institution of elections--doesn't guarantee that it's always going to produce leaders who will
take a country in a constructive direction, in this case, one that the United
States would support. You can have what's sometimes called illiberal
democracy--democratic elections that produce leaders who do things that are
dangerous for the world, and bad for their own people. It would be wildly
premature to be complacent about what will happen to Russia over the long
There's also the haunting and deeply disturbing issue of Chechnya, which
figures not only in Boris Yeltsin's last year in the presidency, but also
mid-term in the 1994 to 1996 period. Chechnya has brought out some of the
worst features of the Russian past and the Russian political habits, most
notably the tendency that kind of ran amuck during the Soviet period--to
categorize entire groups of people as enemies of the state.
That is a part of the curse of the twentieth century for Russia in its Soviet
period, and it's been part of what's come back in Chechnya. And President
Yeltsin bears a lot of responsibility for that, in both of the Chechnyan wars
that he oversaw.
Many people are arguing that President Putin's extraordinary rise is due
almost entirely to his prosecution of this latest war.
I don't think there is any question whatsoever that President Putin rode the
issue of the war in Chechnya from a position of relative obscurity to a
position of ultimate executive power in Russia. I can remember very vividly
when President Yeltsin made Mr. Putin, who was then head of the National
Security Council, the prime minister. There was a lot of skepticism, among
experts on Russia, and among Russians, in the United States government, and
very much in my own head about whether Prime Minister Putin would indeed be
able to make it through the electoral process to succeed President Yeltsin.
But he did make it. And the issue over all others that allowed him to
demonstrate that he was tough and was going to crack down on terrorists and
criminal elements was the Chechnyan war. He has, therefore, a particular
responsibility to face up to the ugly and brutal facts about the way in which
that war has been conducted, and to lift this cloud over Russia's standing in
the eyes of the world that Chechnya has created.
What about President Putin's attitude toward the freedom of the
I understand why people who live in Russia and who depend on what happens there
for their own personal happiness and safety have a lot of apprehensions about
what's going on there. And I think those of those who have the luxury of
observing Russia from a distance and occasionally visiting there have to be
very respectful of the special pressures under which Russians live.
That said, it strikes me as hard to understand how anybody could say that now
is a more hopeless time for Russia than what existed there as recently as a
decade or a little more than ago. Yes, there are disturbing, dangerous
developments. But there's also brave, equal fighting going on behalf of values
and institutions that, if they succeed, will bring Russia to the point where
its own people will have pride and hope because they live in a modern civilized
normal country. That may sound a little condescending coming from somebody
like me, but it's exactly the words that many Russians used to describe their
own hopes for the future.
One of my own dearest friends in Russia once said, "You know, we have really
when it comes down to it, only two words in the Russian language, and all other
words don't matter. And those two words are 'Hooray' and 'Alas.'" The point
of that story is partly that, during the Soviet period when they were under
dictatorship, they were compelled to chant "Hooray," all the time. That's no
longer the case. They have the freedom to tell the world and each other and
their own leaders and their Duma representatives how they really feel.
And I think that one manifestation of that is that a lot of Russians say
"Alas," a great deal. There's a lot to say "alas" to. But there's also a lot
to be more hopeful about. It's their struggle. They have to work this out.
In our own self interest, we need to do everything we can to support those in
Russia who are struggling on behalf of what we believe in.
In October of 1993, the crisis had been building between Yeltsin and
Parliament. You were literally watching the television, as many of us were,
when the tanks first began to fire. Describe that situation to me. What was
your reaction as you saw what was happening?
It was an extraordinary and unforgettable episode. I had moved into my office
from the seventh floor of the Department of State, and was literally camped out
there. I was sleeping a little bit on a couch in my office, but working with
my colleagues to respond as best and most appropriately as we could to the
crisis as it was unfolding.
In the wee hours of the morning, I went down to the Operations Center of the
State Department, the 24-hour command post, and was talking to my Russian
counterpart about what was happening. And we both stopped in mid-conversation,
because we were both watching CNN screens--watching the commencement of the
military operation to retake the Parliament building.
And it was a very chilling moment, because clearly deadly force was being used,
was going to be used, and there were going to be people killed. Now not all,
but some of the forces inside of the Parliament were also violent. And they
had broken out at one point, and had moved on the radio and television station,
fired a rocket and propelled a grenade at the door of it. So for a moment
there, it was an extremely bloody and dangerous moment.
President Yeltsin himself used the phrase that all Russians "have been scorched
by the breath of fratricide." It was hardly a proud moment for him, or for the
Russian people, that the authorities had to kill their own people to restore
At the same time, there was a sense then and subsequently that the forces in
Russians politics that were determined to hang on to the more brutal aspects of
Soviet power were reasserting themselves. And during 1993 and into 1994, there
were a couple of key points. President Yeltsin did opt for what were
essentially democratic measures, in that he gave the Russian people a chance
for a referendum in the spring, and then another referendum regarding the new
constitution in the fall--to let their own views dictate what government policy
would ultimately be.
It wasn't pretty. It was ugly. It was sometimes bloody. But as long as the
prevailing instinct was in the direction of reform and doing things differently
and letting the people decide, it was something that the United States could
support in broad terms.
I was there . . . watching CNN in Moscow at that time. My film crew and I
were there again in early December of 1993, in the lead-up to the elections. We
were at Pushkin Square one night. And when the crowd realized that we were
Americans, for the first time ever they started yelling at me. They
were yelling about the United States supporting Yeltsin as he shot up their
White House, etc. Was that reaction something that you understood or saw at
There has been an unmistakable . . . deterioration of the goodwill for the West
and for the United States over this period. I think there are some specific
explanations for that, particularly NATO enlargement into a much greater
extent. The NATO military action against the targets in Yugoslavia was deeply
frustrating and infuriating to many Russians for a combination of reasons.
But there has also been a more general reason for the decline in good feeling
on the part of many average Russians for the United States and the West . . .
they're frustrated and worried about their own situation. They feel that their
country has come down in the world in some fashion, that it isn't taken as
seriously, that a lot of points of stability and certainty that they could
count on during the Soviet period aren't there anymore, and there aren't others
to take their place.
That makes them angry at their own powers that be, but it also makes them angry
at us, for a combination of reasons. First of all, we have supported the
Russian leadership when we felt that it was in our interest to do so, and if
the steps that the Russian leadership was taking were in the interests of the
But also, this isn't just a Russian phenomenon. There's a natural human
tendency to transfer blame to others. If the world is not looking very bright,
look at outsiders who might be responsible, and there is, alas, a considerable
tradition of that in Russian history.
But I don't want to belittle the importance of this. I think it's a serious
issue that we're going to have to address when President Clinton goes in the
very near future to Moscow. He will speak directly to the Russian people, as
he has done in the past. We're going to have to grapple hard on with this
problem of Russian attitudes towards the United States, and be absolutely
honest with them about what we're for and what we're against, and why there are
certain things that are going on in Russia that we can support, and other
things that we're going to have to oppose.
But at the same time, we can't be paralyzed by the fact that there's been a
rise in anti-Americanism there. We're just going to have to work the issue
with their leaders, and, directly with the Russian people to the extent
. . . After the events of October 1993 . . . people on the streets were
looking at this Parliament that they had voted for. Yes, it was when it was
still the Soviet Union, but they had voted. And that was some sort of an end
for them, some sort of a blow to their idealism.
They are obviously entitled to react to and characterize events in their own
country in their own way. And it's not for us to tell them how they ought to
react. . . . But what I'm about to say is an absolute fact. It isn't the end.
There is still not only a Russia, but it is a Russia that is trying to figure
out where it's going, and how fast to get there, and by what means. And those
are open questions that are being contested, not in back alleys, not in the
dungeons of the Lubyanka Prison, and not in one office in a corner of the
Those questions are being contested all across a great big country that
stretches across eleven time zones. It's being contested in parts of the
country that are kind of oases of reform, and it is being contested in parts of
the country that are sort of theme parks for the old Soviet way of doing
things. It's a very mixed bag, and it's a wide-open contest. And it's
following rules set by the Russian constitution.
Many of the answers about leadership are going to be provided through the
workings of the ballot box. That's new. It's a long way from perfect. It's a
long way from flawless. Corruption is a huge problem. Manipulation of the
press is a huge problem. But there are still hundreds of independent
newspapers and television stations in Russia. And that's hundreds more than
there were as recently as a little more than a decade ago.
I've been told by some people that the U.S. government, along with the
Yeltsin government, expected that the reformers, the Yeltsin team, were in fact
going to win a nice majority in that new parliament.
1993 was obviously going to be a critical year for Russian democracy, not least
because of the more or less constant showdown, which turned bloody between the
Kremlin--the presidency--and the Soviet-era parliament. And there was a new
constitution as well. As we headed into the elections of December, 1993,
nobody in his right mind would predict what was going to happen.
. . . The strong showing of the Zhirinovsky group was a bracing surprise to
many. There was a rush to try to understand why it had happened. And I think
both at the time, and in retrospect, the explanation has become fairly clear.
It wasn't because masses of Russian people liked the obnoxious and dangerous
things that Vladimir Zhirinovsky was saying so much as they were registering a
protest vote against what was a fairly reformist government associated with
Two years later in December of 1995, when there was another parliamentary
election, there was another protest vote--this time not so much in the
direction of the liberal democrats, or neither liberal nor democrat, but rather
towards the Congress. And there were a number of people who felt at the time,
"Oh my goodness, that means that Russia is going to reinstate communism, and a
Communist is going to be elected the next president of Russia." That didn't
happen in 1996. President Yeltsin beat Mr. Zyuganov, the head of the Communist
So again, predictions were wrong, and/or were premature. The system survived.
Russians continued to go to the polls, keeping the constitutional rules. And
as long as that continues, along with the evolution of civil society--very
importantly including a free press--I think it would be a self-fulfilling bit
of foolishness, to proclaim reform in Russia to be over in some fashion.
Within a couple of weeks after that December 1993 election, you said perhaps
what was needed was . . . "less shock and more therapy." What did you mean by
My use of that phrase, "less shock and more therapy," was a play on the concept
of shock therapy. . . . It was a bit of a wisecrack. However, there was a
point there. In a democracy, you need to have what might be called a critical
mass of voting citizens who support the policies of the government, and who
feel that their own lives are benefiting and their hopes for the future are
improving as a result of government policies. When you don't have that kind of
support, and voters are going to go to the pools and vote against pretty much
anybody who is against the powers that be, it's going to be a setback for the
powers that be, and their policies.
I think that the Russian reformers, while they might not have liked that phrase
at the time, have taken steps to do more in the way of social safety net, the
personal and public welfare measures, along with the dismantlement of the old
Soviet state. The old Soviet state, for all of its evils--not to mention its
practical shortcomings--did give a lot of citizens the sense that they were
being taken care of.
Reform, for all of its virtues, and all the reasons that we want it to succeed,
carries with it the danger that average folks will feel that there's nothing in
it for them, except for crime in the streets, loss of their pensions, no decent
health care, and things like that.
And if that's the dynamic that develops, they're going to throw the bums out.
They're going to vote against the people who are trying to carry on with
reform. So there has to be a reconciliation between reform and public
I've been told that you got a bit of heat, not just from Russian reformers,
but from the U.S. Treasury Department over what you are calling your
I've had the good fortune of having terrific friends and colleagues in the
United States government working on the issue of Russia, and none better than
my colleagues in the Treasury Department. . . . If my Treasury colleagues found
fault with that line of mine, they're absolutely right. I knew pretty much as
soon as it came out of my mouth that I had just as soon have be able to edit
the transcript. But since it was a press conference, I couldn't do that. What
I'm trying to discuss here is the substantive issue, not the throwaway line
that made for a provocative headline.
We don't need provocative headlines. What we need is hardheaded analysis. And
Treasury, the State Department, and I think a lot of Russian reformers are
together on the basic point. You've got to find a way to keep shock therapy
from being so shocking to so many people, that they will throw the shock
therapist out next time they get a chance to vote in the polls. That's really
Several people in the Moscow embassy who were State Department employees
were reporting on the political realities on the ground. And they described
what ensued after December of 1993, and sort of through 1994 and on, as an open
warfare in the Moscow embassy, between the political section--the State
Department--and the economic section. The economic policies that the U.S. was
pushing were creating problems on the ground, and were not welcome news by the
I think that's a simplistic rewriting of recent history. I lived through the
deliberation within the United States government which were played out here in
Washington, as well as in Moscow at our embassy there And I can tell you that
we have managed to preserve among those of us working on this issue a very high
degree of civility among ourselves. These are tough, tough issues. Most of
all, they're tough issues for Russians. How do they take this giant country of
theirs, with its immense natural resources; with its immense human resources;
its dreadful past; and its absence of political and economic culture that
qualify it for the modern world; how to make a modern country out of it?
That's tough for them, but that's tough for us as we try to help them do it.
And the reason we're trying to help them do it is for our benefit, as well as
for theirs in the world. The United States will be better off if Russia
succeeds in this.
And there are going to be lots of issues on a daily basis that are not going to
lend themselves to easy answers, and that are going to lend themselves to
debate. And we debate this all the time, and not just between the economic
types and the political types or the Treasury Department and the State
Department. We debate it within my own office at the State Department. I
debate it with myself. Because there's no recipe book anywhere on the shelves
of the greatest library in the world, and certainly not on the shelves of the
Department of State, of how you help a country make the transition from
communism to democracy and market economics. We're making this up as we go
along, in a very real sense. And we're going to make some mistakes, and Lord
knows that the people we're trying to help are going to make some mistakes, or
So it's not surprising that there's going to be a little bit of friction, and
quite a bit of disagreement. I happen to think that if you look at the last
seven-plus years, there's also been a high degree of continuity and a high
degree of consensus, about what to do. We have stuck with the essentials of
our policy, and I think the United States is better off. Among other things,
Russia is pursuing a rather uneven course as it works its way towards a future
that we hope will be a future as a normal democratic, civilized, modern
That makes it all the more important that the United States be steady. And
steadiness has been one of the hallmarks, I think, of the way President Clinton
has overseen and guided this policy over the last seven years.
But the biggest criticism is that there were people--not you--but people in
the U.S. government who were imposing, or attempting to impose, the so-called
Washington consensus, a very rigid formula for economic reform on Russia.
There's the criticism that the people who were attempting to impose this were
not people who knew very much about Russia at all.
It's a little difficult to discuss this in the abstract. I can tell you that
the people in the Department of Treasury who had been working on Russia for the
duration of this administration are people who do know Russia. If you're
talking about the current Secretary of the Treasury, Larry Summers, who has
been working on this issue in three different capacities now, he has made
repeated trips there. He has developed a personal relationship with people
across a broad spectrum inside of Russia. David Lipton, who worked with him
for a number of critical years, knows that country very well, and is highly
respected by the people we most respect on the Russian side, both in pure
economics, and on the political side as well.
The essence of the economic dimension of the argument here really comes down to
whether economics, like physics, obeys certain laws and rules, or whether you
can play fast and loose with those rules. And I think that Treasury, to its
great credit, has made sure that we who work the diplomacy and political side,
and the Russians themselves, remain hardheaded about what will and won't work
This isn't a question of rigidity. It's a question of realism. And I think
that there has been a high degree of harmony within the U.S. government,
specifically between the State Department and the Treasury Department. One of
the things that we're observing right now, as Mr. Putin puts together a team
and decides on his policy, is that he, too, is trying to reconcile what might
be called the laws of economics with the messy realities of the transitional
So, they get it. Now, whether they're going to come up with all of the same
answers that we would suggest . . . is a different issue. But there's no
getting away from the fact that Treasury would not be fulfilling its own
responsibilities if it were to simply give Russia or any other country a pass
on the basic issues of what does and doesn't work in economics.
But critics say that the so-called Washington consensus--which created
discontent among the population, as was revealed in the polls in December 1993
. . . that that should have been a signal that the policies should have been
reexamined. There was a missed opportunity. But this economic rigidity kept
pushing the larger policy forward.
We reexamined our policy and assumptions on which our policy is based all the
time. And we've been doing that since the very beginning. At no point have we
been convinced that we had all the answers, the perfect formula, we could just
sort of put the instrument panel of U.S. policy towards Russia on kind of
autopilot, and go back into the cabin somewhere. We've had our hands on the
controls all along, and we've made adjustments. We've made course corrections;
there's been a lot of buffeting, because of unforeseen or disagreeable
developments. We've taken account of that.
Let me give you one example. At one point, it became clear that a great deal
of money provided by the international financial institutions for macroeconomic
support to Russia was not staying in Russia and doing what it was supposed to
do. It was hightailing it out of the country, and ending up in Swiss bank
accounts or Riviera real estate. So we got down to the into the boiler room of
the policy, and made some serious adjustments.
And we will continue to do that; we've always done that. Nobody in any of the
American branches of government or departments of the executive branch that's
been working on this has ever been under the illusion that it was going to be
easy, or it was going to be amenable to one ready-made set of answers.
In the 1996 elections, Yeltsin is in single digits, and the Communists are
on a roll, essentially. From the United States, what are we looking at?
It was an interesting time, obviously. We meant what we said, when we said--as
we did repeatedly--that the important thing was that the Russian people got a
chance to choose their leaders. It would have been both wrong and stupid for
us to get in a position of endorsing or picking and choosing among our Russian
candidates. And we had had some experience, by the way, with the workings of
Russian democracy producing some outcomes at the polls that were not, in the
short term, entirely to our relief or liking. In fact, we had two pretty
We had December, 1993, when the Zhirinovsky party did very well, indeed, better
than expected. Then in 1995, the Communists did better than expected. Our
line throughout was to let the Russian people decide. As long as the
constitution is respected, as long as the Russian people continue to get a
chance to vote in free and fair elections, it's more likely than not to come
out all right in the long run.
Now, when it came to the presidential election in 1996, our basic position was
the same on principle. There's no question that we welcomed the final outcome,
which was a second-round victory for President Yeltsin.
Russians, as you know, watched Yeltsin after that 1996 election become
someone who was further and further away from them. And he was. He had been
the hope for democracy, the symbol of democracy. Did you observe the same sort
of thing? How did that affect our ability to negotiate with him?
The memory of President Yeltsin that I will carry with me all my life is of a
proud, powerful man, who not only was willing to undertake big fights, but was
almost eager to do so--who threw himself into major struggles having to do with
the most fundamental issues about what was going to happen to his country. He
was a man who led a hard life in many ways. And he was very hard on himself in
lots of ways. His career, including the way in which it gets played out
publicly, contained plenty of reminders of some fairly basic human
But "proud" and "powerful" are the two words that still come to my mind when I
think about President Yeltsin. And he made a mockery, a total mockery, out of
the confident pessimism of a lot of the commentators who wrote him off, on any
of a number of occasions. He had resilience of an extraordinary kind.
. . . One reminder of this . . . is that, despite the immense unpopularity that
befell him during much of his presidency, he was able to get his way . . .
regarding who his successor would be. It's quite amazing, when you think about
it. A man who, by all accounts and all public opinion polls, was one of the
least popular figures in Russian political and public life towards the end of
his presidency could pick Vladimir Putin out of relative obscurity and say,
"Not only is this guy my prime minister, but he's going to be the next
president of Russia. He's going to succeed me as the president of the Russian
Federation." You could hear the guffawing not only from Vilnius to
Vladivostok, Vilnius no longer being in Russia. But you could hear it all
around the world. And yet, Vladimir Putin is the president of Russia today.
Moreover, he got to that position through the workings of the constitutional
process. It was an orderly and democratic conclusion of the transfer of the
power that President Yeltsin had set in motion.
And quite a number of the things that he did were intended to make sure that
the Communists did not come back to run that country. That's very important.
Quite a number of the things that he did with Bill Clinton, as the president of
the United States, have made this a safer world than it would be otherwise.
And they also proved capable of big-time damage limitation between the two of
them. A number of the things that happened while Bill Clinton was in the White
House and Boris Yeltsin was in the Kremlin were dangerous in their own right,
and also could have been utterly destructive of the whole idea of a
U.S.-Russian partnership. And yet that relationship survived. And a lot of
the credit goes to Boris Yeltsin.
I agree with you that Putin's ascendancy and now, his election to the
presidency was "constitutional." But there are lots of Russian commentators
who have both said and written that it was not exactly democratic. Snap
elections were called. The Kremlin and/or oligarchy-controlled media ran an
all-out campaign. We've already talked about the war in Chechyna. Yes,
Russians went to the poll and put their ballots in boxes. But during Soviet
times, Russians went to polls and put ballots in boxes for whom they were
supposed to vote for.
Chechnya is real bad. Chechnya is far and away the most serious threat, both
to Russia's ongoing evolution in the direction we hope it will take, and also
to Russia's relations with the outside world that we have seen in the past
decade. One of the ironies of Chechnya is that we've seen it figure in Russian
democracy in a very contradictory way.
In 1994-1996, it was the unpopularity of the war in Chechnya that induced
President Yeltsin and others to get the war over with, and rush . . . the
pullback out of Chechnya. So there the workings of Russian democracy helped
bring the war to an end.
Ironically, and I would say potentially tragically, in 1999-2000, the
popularity of the war helped keep it going, stoked the fires, as well as helped
the ascendancy of Mr. Putin from a relatively obscure position to a position of
ultimate executive power.
Now, in both cases, it says something about the mindset of the Russian people.
We have to hope that the Russian people will have a chance to ponder what
Chechnya really means, including for them. Is it a healthy and positive thing
for Russia to have an entire body of population--however much a minority it
might be--treated sometime brutally and lethally, as though they were enemies
of the Russian state? I don't think so, and one has to hope that they won't
think so either, over time.
Now, as for the media, there is no question that there has been a lot of
manipulation of the media by a whole variety of actors on the Russian political
stage. It's also the case that there is still an open and free press there.
We, in being candid with the Russians, need to continue to put a lot of
emphasis on the importance that they treat the media as a critical ingredient
of civil society in Russia's chances of making it as a democracy. That's a
kind of cautionary point we need to work into the way in which we think and
talk about what's happening in Russia.
As for the process that resulted in President Putin's now being inaugurated, in
Russia, there were rules. There was a constitution, and there was a nationwide
election with 75 percent turnout, which international observers judged to be
basically free and fair. Was it perfect? No. Was it flawless? No. But was
it democratic? Yes. And I think that's the standard that we should use.
But we can't keep that standard in a vacuum. We've got to look at it in the
context of what's gone before, what will come next, and what's happening in
society as a whole--including the issue of whether civil society is
strengthening, and whether the free press is getting freer and stronger, or
And President Putin needs to understand that the international community's
ability to help him succeed in making Russia a strong country is going to
depend in large measure on how he defines strength. Will he define strength in
the terms of the twentieth century and the nineteenth century and the
eighteenth century, which is that strength equals force? Or will he define
strength in twenty-first century terms, in which strength means your ability to
plug into the global economy, and to be a full and vigorous participant in the
And you've said about the phrase that he's used, "the dictatorship of the
law," that one should pause in parsing that phrase. . . .
Yes. I'd like to be a little surer than I am where the accent is--in the
word "dictatorship" or on the word "law." I think the term that's more common
in the West, in the United States, is "rule of law." . . . But maybe . . . his
vocabulary is evolving along with other things in Russia.
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