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The Times: Putin on the line

EXTRACT: His KGB background should also make him realistic in assessing Russia’s strengths and weaknesses in dealing with the outside world. There is a tendency to overestimate Russia as an “energy superpower”: it still needs Western technology. This may lie behind Russia’s cavalier dealings with foreign oil companies such as Shell and BP, which it wants to force out of contracts that it dislikes. There are suggestions that Exxon’s new deal with China may prompt a strategic reassessment. But pressure on Shell shows no sign of abating. Mr Putin’s vaunted plain speaking should extend beyond domestic issues to a new realism on foreign policy.

THE ARTICLE

Russians get a chance to question their President

October 26, 2006

President Putin’s acerbic repartee is becoming notorious in the West: the latest example of his penchant for turning criticism back on his critics came at last week’s summit in Finland, when he ridiculed the Spanish over corruption on the Costa del Sol and noted to the Italians that “mafia” was not a Russian word. Russians, however, like a leader who can think on his feet and hold his own. And yesterday they again saw their President at his most fluently convincing when he spent three hours answering questions in a national television phone-in.

The President as shock jock has become an annual event, and this year hundreds of thousands of Russians sent in questions, hoping to be selected to voice their concerns. Such accessibility is welcome, and Mr Putin was well prepared, with a command of statistics and policies that few previous incumbents could match. But the concerns of Russians differ from those of foreigners. Little was said on the state of democracy, freedom of the press, curbs on non-governmental organisations or the independence of the judiciary. Callers, admittedly preselected, focused on economic prospects, social welfare, pensions, transport infrastructure and the environment. 
 
Mr Putin did, however, cover two foreign issues that have caused considerable concern within Russia and abroad: the escalation of Moscow’s quarrel with Georgia and North Korea’s nuclear test. On neither did he give answers that were reassuring. He insisted, sarcastically, that Russia was not seeking to take over the two breakaway regions in Georgia as it had enough territory of its own. But he did not give any promise that Russia would restore energy and communications links or halt the deportation of Georgians alleged to be illegal immigrants in Russia. Nor did he suggest that Moscow would back Western efforts to put pressure on Pyongyang, warning Washington instead not to back North Korea into a corner.

On one issue, however, Mr Putin was unambiguous: he would not seek a third term as president. That will disappoint many Russians, whose attachment to constitutional process is far weaker than their enthusiasm for an authoritarian figure at the helm. They hope that his cryptic remarks about wanting still to have influence in the country presage some device for keeping him as the real ruler. But Mr Putin is sufficiently realistic to understand the dangers of any such fudge.

His KGB background should also make him realistic in assessing Russia’s strengths and weaknesses in dealing with the outside world. There is a tendency to overestimate Russia as an “energy superpower”: it still needs Western technology. This may lie behind Russia’s cavalier dealings with foreign oil companies such as Shell and BP, which it wants to force out of contracts that it dislikes. There are suggestions that Exxon’s new deal with China may prompt a strategic reassessment. But pressure on Shell shows no sign of abating. Mr Putin’s vaunted plain speaking should extend beyond domestic issues to a new realism on foreign policy.
 
http://www.timesonline.co.uk/article/0,,542-2421796,00.html
 

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