A Diplomat's Take on Putin and Present-day Russia
Brunswick Times Record (Brunswick, ME)
Posted on March 14, 2005
By Jim McCarthy
|James Collins, Former U.S. Ambassador to Russia|
ambassador to Russia from 1997 to July 2001, acknowledges he probably is better known in Russia than he is here in the United States.
"I was a TV personality, a political figure," he said of his four-year
stint as ambassador and designated American spokesman in Russia. "You lived in a fish bowl. What you said was followed closely, and that's because it was presumed that what you said was what the American president and people thought ... Because we were spending a lot of money in Russia, you were always on stage."
Collins, now a senior international adviser for Akin Gump Strauss Hauer and Feld, is considered a leading authority on U.S. relations with Russia. In addition to his four-year stint as ambassador, he was deputy chief of mission with Ambassador Robert S. Strauss at the U.S. embassy in Moscow during the collapse of the former Soviet Union in the early 1990s. He gave a one-hour interview at The Times Record on March 4, before heading off to give the keynote address that night at a Bowdoin College "Town and College" dinner.
In both interview and talk, Collins offered an insider's perspective on Russia's roller-coaster ride toward an open and accountable government based on the rule of law. "In the last 20 years, at least since 1991, Russia has been a country trying to figure out what it wants to do when it grows up," he told The Times Record.
Collins characterized Russia's present course under President Vladimir Putin as a period of backsliding, with state control being reinstated over some aspects of the Russian economy and a general shift toward a more authoritarian style of governing. "In the last year there have been a lot of things that have raised real questions about where he is going," he said.
For example, he noted the "severe" restrictions and controls placed on electronic media during last fall's presidential campaign that skewed coverage to the advantage of Putin and his party's parliamentary candidates. "This is not Soviet-style television, but it's clearly under the government's scope," he said.
As a result, Collins said, there was no real discussion of the issues facing Russia and the election is seen by most outside observers as "not an open one."
Another area of backsliding is in the realm of economic reforms which have come to a halt since Putin's re-election, Collins said, largely because a bloc of his supporters believe the state should play a greater role than private companies in decisions about energy, railroads and utilities.
Collins said Putin also faces serious internal political problems as he tries to push reforms in Russia's "entitlement programs," which range from free city transportation for veterans to free health care for various groups. Efforts to reduce the costs of these entitlements have triggered widespread public protests, particularly among pensioners.
"The one side you don't want to get on the wrong side of in Russia is the pensioners," Collins said.
Citing an annual poll taken every January that asks Russians if their country as headed in the right direction, Collins said less than 30 percent thought this year that it was.
"It's been a bad year for Putin," he said. "Much of this is the result of the government leaders he picked. This is his crowd. He has a government at the moment that has clearly been making a mess of it. In response to these setbacks he has moved in a more authoritarian, less accountable direction."
Collins is careful to credit Putin with accomplishing a lot during his
first four-year term, when the Russian leader put through a number of reforms involving taxes, property and law that had eluded his predecessor Boris Yeltsin.
"Putin got it done," he said, adding that the Russian leader also improved the Russian presidency's prestige and image internationally particularly after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States, when Putin declared that Russia was a full partner in the fight against terrorism.
Collins said the United States could be doing more to facilitate Russia's continuing development as a democracy.
"Frankly, lecturing the Russians is not productive," he said. "Don't tell them they need to do this or do that."
That doesn't mean, he said, the United States should abandon goals and programs that are very much in our interest to encourage Russians to make a greater effort in pursuing. Topping Collins' suggested to-do list: Accelerating the dismantling of Russia's nuclear weapons.
"We've wasted four years," he said. "If there was any one thing we should have done after Sept. 11, that's what we should have done ... We ought to put more resources into that."
Collins' second recommendation is greater encouragement of business relationships between Russians and Americans.
"From the president on down we need to make the case that there is real value in developing solid business relationships between Russians and Americans," he said. "It really seems the U.S. government and leadership should tell our businesses that this is important to do. Yes, this is a risky, tough market. A lot of businesses are reluctant to enter it unless 'Uncle' is going to be there."
Supporting Russia's efforts to get into the World Trade Organization, Collins said, is important because it will further integrate Russia into the global economic system and requires crucial reforms, such as guarantees of free trade and a consistently fair business environment.
His third recommendation is to continue encouraging "building bridges" between the two countries through non-governmental and non-profit organizations among them the Open World Program.
Created by Congress in 1999 to bring emerging federal and local Russian political leaders to the United States to meet their American counterparts and gain firsthand knowledge of how American civil society works, Open World is currently the only U.S. government program that allows Russian officials to go on exchange trips to the States. It focuses on leadership in seven areas: rule of law, the environment, health, youth issues, women
as leaders, elections, and culture.
"We should be getting as many Americans and Russians together as possible, getting things done together," he said of Open World and similar programs. "You get a lot if you spend a little money. I think those things are important. Unfortunately, they seem to be cutting funding for a lot of those things."
Finally, Collins said, the U.S. government and citizens should not be afraid to articulate "that we have certain principles we live by and that we believe are important." With Putin required to step down at the end of his second term in 2008, the United States should make clear that the elections to replace him should be as democratic as possible, with open and free debates between the candidates hoping to succeed him.
Despite political and economic differences that continue to exist between the U.S. and Russia, Collins sees cause for optimism. Noting that the two countries are no longer "ideological enemies" as they were during the Cold War, he credits former Russian President Boris Yeltsin with planting a strong seed of democracy during his years in the presidency.
"He put in place the understanding that legitimate power only comes from the governed," Collins said. "He deserves a bit of credit that he rarely is given. ... I still happen to think that was the most revolutionary thing he did."
[Reprinted with Permission]