Index

Thomas R. , Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs
Address at Meridian House/Smithsonian Seminar "Russia: Sleeping Superpower?"
Washington, DC, March 28, 2000


Russia After the Elections

Thank you very much for inviting me to be here this evening to kick off the Meridian House and Smithsonian lecture series, "Russia Revisited: The Sleeping Superpower?" It is a good time to review the scene, just 2 days after the Russian presidential elections.

The 3 1/2 years I spent in Russia from 1993-1996 were among the most fascinating in a long career in diplomacy. I hope that my time there, the thousands of miles traveled across that country's 11 time zones and visits to nearly 60 of the 89 equivalents to our states will help to provide some insight into our discussion of U.S. policy toward Russia.

The title of this seminar, "Russia -- Sleeping Superpower?" gives you an idea of why we are all here together tonight. Even after the breakup of the Soviet Union, Russia is the largest country in the world, a bridge -- or perhaps a divide -- between Asia and Europe. Rich in natural resources, perhaps the richest in the world and with a skilled labor force, Russia has the potential to become a globally competitive market economy.

Russia's transition will take many years, and today Russia is at yet another crossroads in that process. Two days ago, the Russian people elected Vladimir Putin as the second President of the Russian Federation. Reflecting both his popularity and the lack of opponents of any stature, Putin won just over 52% of the vote.

Putin had the obvious advantage of incumbency, which he used to the utmost. There are also serious questions about manipulation of the media. Overall, however, there were no major election irregularities and, as the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe noted, they did not affect the outcome of the elections.

The election also was interesting in that there was something of a cautionary voice expressed by some Russians in the larger-than-expected vote for Putin's primary opponent, Communist candidate Zyuganov, and because Putin's majority was a bit less than was expected. Whether they meant to or not, some Russians have sent a signal that all is not well and they will be watching closely what President Putin does. So will we.

But clearly, too, Putin has a mandate. There is no question that many Russians missed the absence of central control and welcomed the emergence of a strong leader. Thus far, it also seems that Putin has a more direct and straightforward rapport with the Russian people than did his predecessors. Since the election, he has acknowledged that the large vote for the Communists should be interpreted as a protest vote and that hard times are still ahead for Russia and Russians.

That level-headedness and openness are interesting indicators of how Putin may work with and for the Russian people.

The next critical question is, "What will he do with his mandate?" "Putin-ology" has become a cottage industry in Moscow and Washington. You only have to read the daily papers to know that. We've all heard about Putin as a KGB Lt. Colonel in the 1980s and Putin as St. Petersburg deputy mayor and reformer in the 1990s.

There is much talk of Putin's statements that Russia must be a strong state but little insight into what he means by all of this. Pundits are even analyzing the acting president's fascination with judo to predict what he will do.

Much of this speculation says a great deal more about the analyst than it does about the patient on the couch. The truth is that we don't yet know what kind of a president Vladimir Putin will be. While it flies in the face of our quick-to-judge, faster-to-act society, the course Putin will follow is not yet clear, and there is therefore more than a certain degree of "wait and see" necessary. But make no mistake -- even as Putin's tenure begins, we actively are protecting our interests and seeking to influence events.

Once Putin is inaugurated, most likely on May 5th, he will formally nominate a Prime Minister and appoint a cabinet. In fact, reports today indicate that he may announce his choice for prime minister quite soon. The people he places in positions of responsibility will be among the early indicators of where Putin intends to take Russia.

There is no doubt that the questions -- and ultimately the answers -- about Russia's new President are important. Putin is likely to be the single-most influential person in Russia, for perhaps the next 8 years if he wins a second term. But it also is important to remember that there are other factors at work as well. Other power centers are developing in Russia -- the regions, the military, the oligarchs, even the much-maligned Russian Duma.

Decentralization is a matter of fact in Russia, with the regions gaining more autonomy. Over the last decade, regional governors have had to adjust as the center provided fewer subsidies but also less control. Governors, who are now elected rather than appointed, and elected local legislators have created their own political and commercial power bases with which Moscow has had to reckon.

Likewise, the Duma, while constitutionally far weaker than the presidency, has matured somewhat. The December parliamentary elections brought in more democrats, fewer radicals, and the Duma seems inclined to be more serious about the business of enacting legislation. That could be one salutary evolution with good effect for the days ahead.

Most important, the hallmarks of a democracy -- free and fair elections, freedom of the press, freedom of religion, the rule of law, a civil society -- are beginning now to take hold, although this process is very far from being complete.

Nevertheless, as these practices become stronger and institutionalized, any given individual will become less important. Russia would then have the time-honored institutions to fall back upon, not one person making a decision today that could be reversed easily tomorrow. These new institutions also will make it harder for the corrupt to compete. This in itself will be a welcome change.

Sunday's presidential elections mark Russia's first democratic transfer of power in its 1,000-year history. One of the most overlooked facts about this election is that democratic elections are becoming unchallenged in Russia as the way to select leaders. Since the break-up of the Soviet Union, there have been three nationwide Duma elections and now two presidential elections, not to mention hundreds of regional and local elections. Almost all of them passed without significant complaints of malfeasance.

When former President Yeltsin resigned, he appointed Putin as Acting President and presidential elections were called. This is the procedure as outlined in the Russian Constitution. There was certainly criticism that the system was being manipulated to Putin's advantage, but no one questioned the constitutionality of the process or tried to come to power by other means. This is a significant development in a country that not 10 years ago was a communist country in which people had no say about who their leaders would be and in which the decision process itself was shrouded in mystery.

Another overlooked development is Russia's progress toward developing a civil society, particularly outside the major cities of Moscow and St. Petersburg. This is something that was evident to me in my travels in Russia 4 years ago, and I think it is even more evident now.

Russia today boasts 65,000 non-governmental organizations, up from just a handful a decade ago.

For those of us who live in the United States, it is hard to understand what a profound development this truly is. But imagine America with only the government and a few private businesses -- no American Cancer Society, no animal shelters, no women's shelters, no Boy Scouts or Girl Scouts, no foundations, no lobbyists, no Smithsonian or Meridian House to bring you these lectures.

Such organizations of a free and civil society affect all of our lives, every day. In Russia, they are starting to do so as well.

That is where the real change is taking place in Russia. And as individuals get used to the idea of taking control of their lives and their communities, it is the insurance policy that Russia can never go back to what it was before.

Such changes are reflected in other areas as well. Private business is expanding and some is flourishing despite the severe economic hardships after the collapse of the ruble in August 1998. Try to imagine a state without individual initiative in the area of business and competition. This, too, is a welcome and potentially very significant change.

But let me also be clear on another important point. Russia is still very much a work in progress. No one is under the illusion that Russia's path to democracy and a full market economy is getting any easier. And we realize that Russian transformation is not a matter of months or years but something that probably will take decades and generations.

I think it is worthwhile to turn for a moment to Russia's economy, where the transition from a state run to a market driven system has been slow and has disappointed many -- not the least of which is Russia's own population. It is clear now that this process will take longer than any of us thought.

This is most telling in the economic conditions under which many Russians find themselves now today. More than 35% of the population lives on just over $1.00 a day. Inflation is down from 80% in 1998, which is truly good news, but still reached 36% in 1999, which truly is not good news.

These figures are discouraging for what they suggest about the possibilities for consumer spending and investment, as well as the effects of such poverty on the public's faith in the new economy, on its health, infrastructure, and social institutions. Social services and education suffer from years of budgetary neglect.

Still, Russians are looking forward, not back to staid communist ideals, for their economic future. Equally important to note is that the economic indicators are beginning to show some signs of recovery. GDP, industrial production, and the trade surplus all grew in 1999, while the budget deficit, wage arrearages, and unemployment declined.

President Putin already has announced that one of his key objectives will be to improve the standard of living under which Russians are living. In that regard, he has said that the government will pay its employees back wages as of April 1. Such steps are important, particularly if they prove to be the beginning of a new way of doing business and of an approach to governance and the economy in which the people at large benefit, not just the oligarchs. And of course, you can imagine what it has been like in a country such as Russia when arrearages have gone back many months -- and you can imagine what would occur if that happened in our country.

In addition, high oil prices and a weak ruble could mean a higher growth rate in Russia in 2000. If this were accompanied by controlled spending and long-needed economic reforms, it could lay the groundwork for longer-term growth.

The economic course is Putin's to set, and it will be a mark both of his commitment to reform and of his ability to influence the Duma. The next steps in Russia's political and economic transition will require continued dedication on the part of Russia's leaders and patience on the part of its people.

It will require the same of American officials and the American public. We need to remember that they (and we) are in this for the long haul -- not just for today's headline. And I hope we have now put the "Who Lost Russia?" debate behind us. Secretary Albright I think said it best last fall when she said "the suggestion made by some that Russia is ours to lose is arrogant; the suggestion that Russia is lost is simply wrong."

But the hearts and minds of Chechnya's people, both Russians and Chechens, are Russia's to lose. I frankly must tell you how disheartened I was when fighting in Chechnya began again last autumn. I lived through the previous conflict and saw its divisive toll not only in the Caucasus but throughout Russian society.

We don't dispute Russia's right to fight terrorism on its own soil. An armed incursion by Chechen separatists into Dagestan last August and apartment bombings may be the events that triggered the current fighting.

That, however, does not excuse the Russian Government's decision to use massive military force against civilians inside Chechnya. The numbers speak for themselves: 200,000 people displaced, thousands of innocent civilians dead or wounded, and thousands of homes and businesses destroyed since last September.

It will take decades and millions of dollars to rebuild Chechnya. Moreover, allegations about atrocities by Russian forces have raised questions about the Russian Government's commitment to human rights and international norms.

Likewise, the Russian Government's decision to clamp down on the media's ability to cover the conflict and its treatment of Radio Liberty's Andrei Babitsky have raised questions about its commitment to freedom of the press.

I hope that Russia will move quickly to investigate these allegations in concert with the international community and to protect all of its citizens and their basic freedoms as enshrined in Russia's Constitution.

The U.S. raises our concerns about Chechnya at every opportunity we have to talk with Russians, from the President on down. Slowly, the West is making some progress. In the fall, the efforts of the U.S. and others were instrumental in gaining access for international donors to the region and possibly in averting a humanitarian disaster.

Putin has said he does not want Russia to be isolated internationally. He has also stated that he sees Russia as a part of Europe. We need to keep raising Chechnya with the Russians, to keep moving them in the right direction on Chechnya and toward the international norms of the global community.

What does the U.S. want the Russians to do now? Here are a few of our thoughts:

With the fighting in Chechnya, many Americans naturally ask why their government remains committed to engagement with Russia. The answer is a simple one: because the policy of engagement with Russia advances the safety and security of the American people. This is our enduring national security interest beyond the disagreements and the disappointments of the moment.

For much of the past 50 years, Russia and the United States have been adversaries. That era happily has now passed. Despite the well-known areas of disagreement with Russia, the end of the Cold War has meant a more constructive relationship, whether one measures our bilateral cooperation on reducing nuclear weapons material or our cooperation internationally or the growing ties among our citizens and business people.

As Russia continues its journey from communism, we need actively to engage Russia so that it becomes a productive member of the world community.

Since the Cold War ended, the U.S. has pursued three overriding goals in its relationship with Russia: The first is to increase the safety of the American people by working to reduce Cold War arsenals, stop proliferation, and create a stable and undivided Europe. The second is to work with Russia internationally, and the third is to support Russia's effort to transform its political, economic, and social institutions at home.

It is crystal clear why we work so hard on arms control and non-proliferation. Why we care what kind of a country Russia becomes is sometimes less obvious, but it comes down to the same thing: U.S. national security interests.

A Russia that boasts a healthy economy, strong institutions, and a political system that works is a country that understands that future progress depends not on dominating others but on forging economic and political partnerships in the global community. To paraphrase Prime Minister Thatcher, that would be a Russia we can do business with.

And there is no downside. The zero-sum world of the Cold War is gone; we have nothing to lose by a Russia that is economically and politically strong and confident about its own security, and we have everything to gain by a Russia that can be a full partner in the world community.

Furthermore, a stable, prosperous, and democratic Russia is much more likely to be a good partner on arms control and questions of international security and peace.

Let me tell you concretely the kinds of things we have done with Russia over the past 8 years to protect and build your security.

The United States has helped deactivate almost 5,000 nuclear warheads in the former Soviet Union, removed nuclear weapons from three countries (Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan), destroyed hundreds of missiles, bombers, and ballistic missile submarines that once targeted our country, strengthened the security of nuclear weapons and materials at more than 50 sites, helped put in place barriers against illicit trafficking in weapons materials and technologies, and purchased more than 80 tons of highly enriched uranium -- enough to make more than 3,000 nuclear warheads. We will be using it to make electricity in our nuclear power plants and we have an agreement to purchase a total of 500 tons over 15 years with an option to increase that amount later.

That kind of cooperation is also evident in the Expanded Threat Reduction Initiative, which will help Russia tighten export controls, improve security over its existing weapons of mass destruction, and provide increased opportunities for thousands of former Soviet weapons scientists to participate in peaceful commercial and research activities.

To combat nuclear proliferation, the U.S. and Russia have been partners in developing the foundations of a stronger international non-proliferation regime, based on the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons.

The U.S. policy of engagement is also designed to help Russians build the prosperous and democratic country that will be America's partner in meeting the challenges ahead in this century.

U.S. assistance programs have brought more than 35,000 young Russians to the U.S. for training, they have helped 275,000 Russian small businessmen with financing or training, and they have reached out to 300 independent TV stations in Russia's provinces.

Russia and America also have common interests on many international issues. Last year alone, Russian and American soldiers stood side-by-side to keep the peace in Bosnia and Kosovo, our diplomats helped negotiate the adapted Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe signed by 53 members of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, and our scientists worked to ensure that Y2K brought no nuclear mishaps.

Our policy of engagement also means that we engage in areas where we have strong disagreements. This is what grabs the headlines and for many becomes the entirety of the relationship.

Indeed, the relationship has had its share of very heavy weather over the past year -- between Kosovo and Chechnya and our deep concerns about Russian support for missile and nuclear projects in Iran.

But I also want to point out that during the Kosovo campaign, when media pundits were predicting the absolute end of the relationship, we were quietly continuing our work on other issues.

During this period, we concluded agreements on the framework for the historic CFE Adaptation Treaty, negotiated a Civil Air Agreement, a Mutual Legal Assistance Treaty, and the list goes on.

Are all of these issues headliners? No. But, for example, it is crucially important to the airline industry -- and all the companies that depend on them and all of you who travel - that we have a Civil Air Agreement.

As for Kosovo, despite virulent debate, the Russians proved to be instrumental in the diplomatic solution that brought an end to the military action. Cooperation on the ground between Russian and other KFOR troops remains excellent. The military-to-military relationship and the NATO-Russia relationship are both getting back on track now, too, and the U.S., Russia, and others are meeting today in Europe in the Contact Group to chart a future course together in Kosovo.

It is the hallmark of a mature relationship that even when two countries profoundly disagree they can still do business together. Both Russia and the United States recognize that it just makes more sense to engage: We simply have too many interests in common -- political, security, cultural, and commercial -- to do otherwise. And we can engage in a mature way, without linking progress in one area to progress in all others. It is in our common interest to cooperate where we can and to manage our differences where we cannot.

In the wake of the weekend elections, Russians face decisions on critical issues from the economy to Chechnya. A young and vigorous President is about to lead Russia into the new millennium. He is different from his predecessors -- who exhibited bold strokes of bravery at key points in the break up of the former Soviet Union. He came to power through the ballot box in a country already 7 years old. He now will have to make happen what his predecessors' bold decisions made possible.

Putin will be judged at home in large measure on his willingness and ability to implement economic and political reform and restore the confidence of the citizenry in the state and in the economy.

He will be judged by the world by how he deals with the country's internal instabilities, how he engages with weak neighbors across Russia's borders, and the role that Russia chooses to play internationally, as well as by his own personal skill at furthering Russia's economic and political reform.

Today, the question of "Whither Russia" is very much on America's mind, whether one is in business, government, or academia. It is, of course, a question whose answer does not lie in Washington; the answer lies instead with Russia and in the decisions that the new government will make.

The problems that need to be addressed are clear: Will the new government create a positive, fair, and transparent business climate? Will it tap the immense ingenuity of the Russian people and strengthen its democracy? Will Russia make the changes that will inspire its own people as well as the international community to invest in that economy?

We don't know where Russia will go. That is Russia's choice to make. But as Secretary Albright stated recently, "All we can be sure of now is that the result will be distinctively Russian. And that it will depend ultimately far less on decrees handed down in Moscow . . . than on the decisions made and opinions formed in Russia's classrooms, farms, factories, and living rooms."

No shadows hide the problems Russia must face, but it is equally true that no every-day adversity can diminish the extraordinary potential of that land and people. We here today share an admiration and a hope for Russia, even as we know clearly its problems and remain in awe of its potential.

The United States welcomes its new relationship with Russia and strongly believes that a healthy relationship between our two countries is the best course. Each thereby is made more secure, and our citizens and business people are given more opportunity.

The relationship will be stronger if Russia completes its democratic and economic transition. We can play a constructive role to help that happen. It is clearly in our interest to do so and for our government and people and country to be part of that process.

Thank you all.

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