NPR

Russia May Be Poised To Regain Influence In Region

Elections in Georgia, Ukraine and Lithuania are being closely watched in the West as a test of whether former Soviet states will shift closer to Russia. Russian president Vladimir Putin, for his part, has made political, economic and security reintegration of former Soviet republics a priority.

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Transcript

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm David Greene in Washington, sitting in for Neal Conan. The president of the former Soviet Republic of Georgia, Mikheil Saakashvili, conceded defeat today. His ruling political party lost to the opposition in a parliamentary election. The vote marks the first real challenge to Saakashvili's rule since he came to power in the peaceful Rose Revolution in 2003.

President Saakashvili had warned that if voters supported the opposition, they would be turning back the clock in Georgia, giving Russia the chance to exert more power. Already another former Soviet state, Ukraine, has appeared to go in that direction. Ukraine's Orange Revolution now seems a distant memory, and the country is ruled by an ethnic Russian with closer ties to Moscow.

This hour we'll talk about whether 20 years after the Soviet collapse we've hit a new defining moment. Could this be Russia's chance to reclaim some dominance in its neighborhood and perhaps in the world? NPR foreign correspondent Corey Flintoff joins us in a moment, as does New Republic staff writer Julia Ioffe here in the studio.

We also want to hear from people who have been to Russia recently. Did you see anything that made you think Russia is a threat today? Our number is 800-989-8255. Our email address is talk@npr.org. Later in the program, playoff fever in Major League Baseball. Get excited fans, we'll tell you who's in, who's out and what races are going down to the final wire.

But first Russia and its neighbors, and joining me in the studio, NPR foreign correspondent Corey Flintoff, who is based in Moscow, but we have the rare chance to have him here in Washington. Corey, hello to you.

COREY FLINTOFF, BYLINE: Hi.

GREENE: And Julia Ioffe, staff writer for The New Republic, a Russian-American journalist. You just got back from three years reporting in Moscow. We were there some of the time together because I was there as an NPR Moscow correspondent. It's great to see you in the studio.

JULIA IOFFE: Hello.

GREENE: Let's start with the news. Corey, can you update on us on what's happening in Georgia? Are votes still being counted? And what's been the reaction to this election?

FLINTOFF: They are still being counted, but based on preliminary results, the president, Mikheil Saakashvili, actually made a concession speech this morning, and he said that as president, he's constitutionally required to help the opposition party form a new government.

The thing about that concession speech, though, it wasn't very concessionary because he did say that he still believes that the opposition, which is led by a billionaire businessman named Bidzina Ivanishvili is extremely wrong and that he's prepared to oppose them very strongly as an opposition party in parliament.

GREENE: And you have reported on how this election really changed in the final weeks. It looked as though Mikheil Saakashvili was going to, his party was going to stay in power in these parliamentary elections and have no trouble.

FLINTOFF: Absolutely, and that was the case up until about two weeks ago, when a couple of pro-opposition TV channels in Tbilisi aired video that showed guards in the country's prisons abusing prisoners, beating them and actually sexually abusing them. It was a very shocking thing to Georgians.

You know, there's been a lot of - it's said that - opposition people say it's an open secret that there was abuses taking place in the prison system, but this is the first time that many Georgians had actually seen it in person, and it produced pretty sizable protest demonstrations by students in Tbilisi, and it seems to have turned the tide for Georgian Dream, the opposition coalition.

GREENE: Some Americans who remember the name Mikheil Saakashvili might remember during the war between Russia and Georgia seeing him on CNN a lot. He seemed like he was an ally of the United States, a leader who the West could look for to kind of move things in a more Western kind of way in Georgia. What has happened since then?

FLINTOFF: Well, you know, he was credited as a reformer in a lot of ways and, you know, a very sort of pro-democracy figure who took over in this bloodless revolution, this rather romantic Rose Revolution, you know, that sort of caught the fancy, especially of American lawmakers, and that actually produced a lot of American aid and American support for his government. He did succeed apparently in reforming a very corrupt police system there. The traffic police and the customs officials were notorious, and they supposedly are now, you know, an exemplary force in the former Soviet Union.

But his opponents accused him of being autocratic, of being arrogant, of using Soviet-style tactics when it came to repressing the opposition, and I think that eventually has caught up with him, at least in the Georgian public mind.

GREENE: And we should say even if he, his party does lose this parliamentary election, he will remain president for another year but perhaps weakened, as it were.

FLINTOFF: Exactly, although, you know, there was a constitutional change that was recently made that would devolve more of the president's powers onto the prime minister. But that won't come into force until Saakashvili is out of power, and that means that he will remain a fairly strong executive over the next year and that there are likely to be clashes between him and the prime minister.

GREENE: Let's talk a bit about why this could be important for Western observers and for Americans who are listening to our program. Russia, after these preliminary results came in, we heard from Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, who seemed to be gloating a little bit about this apparent Saakashvili defeat, saying that, you know, he feels that this will be a more constructive government to work with if the opposition wins.

Julia Ioffe, why might we be seeing some gloating from Moscow?

IOFFE: Well, we have to remember that shortly before the war broke in August 2008, Mikheil Saakashvili was made a persona non grata in Moscow. And Medvedev, who was newly inaugurated Russian president at the time, said that as long as Saakashvili was in power, Russia and Georgia would not have diplomatic relations.

This was a fairly shocking thing at the time because both in the Russian and Georgian imagination, there's this kind of romantic love affair between the two countries. They both idealize each other, and this was very shocking. The imports of wine, of Georgian wine to Russia stopped. Direct flights were cut off.

Since then, now Ivanishvili, who has - who made his fortune in Russia, who speaks very good Russian, who has still a lot of business in Russia, is seen as a kind of - he was portrayed by the ruling coalition and by Saakashvili as a Russian agent. He's very much not. But the problem I see coming up is that when they try to deal with Russia, or when Russia tries to deal with Ivanishvili, just because he's Saakashvili doesn't mean it's going to be that much easier.

Ivanishvili has been a lot more conciliatory. He hasn't pulled the same kinds of stunts that Saakashvili did. Remember that two years ago, the Georgian - the news on one of the Georgian state-owned TV channels opened with a mock invasion, mock Russian invasion of Georgia.

Then there was a kind of psych, we-got-you moment, but it freaked a lot of people out in Georgia. And Joe Biden actually got on the phone and boxed Saakashvili's ears, as far as I know.

But the underlying issues are still not resolved. So they may be gloating just because it's Saakashvili, but the regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which were taken over by Russia, effectively, after the war, are still considered by Georgians and by Ivanishvili as Georgian - occupied Georgian land.

GREENE: Clearly Ivanishvili, this opposition leader, not - I mean, there's no evidence that he's a Russian agent, as some of his critics would say, or even would be closer to Russia. But to have someone like Saakashvili, who was very close to people like John McCain in this country, who seemed like a...

IOFFE: And, you know, there's a George W. Bush Road that leads from the airport into the center of the city.

GREENE: Yeah, I mean, very close to the West. To have someone who might be, you know, getting close to leading this country who is seen perhaps as closer to Russia, we look at a country like Ukraine, that has a president now who's ethnic Russian, seen as closer to Moscow, it seems like Ukraine's ties to the West and to Europe are seen - the ties are getting, you know, nonexistent almost in some ways, or tougher.

I mean, what is happening in this larger picture? I mean, lot of people thought that the collapse of the Soviet Union was the end of history, as it would put. I mean, Western-style democracy was going to spread to all of these countries.

IOFFE: Look, I have two things to say about this. First of all, I don't necessarily think it's a bad thing or that Russia's a threat to try to have closer relations with former Soviet republics. It's kind of unrealistic for a tiny country like Georgia to want to have super-strong, friendly relations with the U.S. and have no relations with Russia, with which its - I mean, it's next-door to Russia.

Russia should, by all laws of nature and logic, should be its biggest trading partner, and they should have a close and functional relationship. America is very, very far away. The same thing goes for Ukraine. I think that Georgia tends to kind of throw all its eggs in one basket and say either we're totally with Russia, or we're totally with the U.S., or we're - I mean, and this has been true throughout their history.

GREENE: A balance might be a smarter idea for them in some ways.

IOFFE: Yeah.

GREENE: Corey, Vladimir Putin has talked about something called a Eurasian Union, which seems to be a way to get some of these - this former Soviet's base into some new economic partnership. What is that, and is it something that the United States should be watching closely?

FLINTOFF: You know, it's not really clear what it is just now or whether all these other countries will buy into it as Russia seems to hope. You know, I talked to Fyodor Lukyanov, who's the editor of a policy journal in Moscow. And he said that, you know, basically it was really a fault of the United States and of the European Union that's made this possible, you know, that President Putin can say, well, you know, essentially the U.S. failed in Iraq and Afghanistan, shows us that their power is not very great.

The European Union is collapsing around its ears right now. This is the time for Russia to look eastward and to talk about a Eurasian Union, that, like the European Union, could be a powerful trading and political bloc. But of course his idea of the union is with Russia firmly in control of all this.

IOFFE: Right, and also, I mean, I would love to see what this actually looks like when implemented. Russia is kind of notorious for bungling things, from rocket launches to unions like this. You have to think about the customs union it built with Belarus and Kazakhstan, which, I mean, doesn't really work yet, and it's been in the works for many, many years.

GREENE: We have an email here from John(ph). He writes: Just spent three days in St. Petersburg and saw nothing but regular people trying to make a living. This is not to say the heads of government aren't still working the Cold War, we never felt in any danger at all.

And I guess that's one thing that I do want to talk to both of you about. Sort of there seems to be this separation. You have Putin's Russia and sort of the Russia that he presents, and a lot of Western leaders aren't huge fans of him, but then this is a country that is getting, you know, more open, and you know, a lot of Americans and others are visiting and enjoying themselves.

IOFFE: Well, and also if you go to Georgia, you have Georgians singing odes to Russians and how they love Russian culture, and it's just their two idiot presidents who can't get along. And Russians will say the same thing. That said, it depends where you go in Russia and who you talk to. Given the fact that the Kremlin has stepped up its anti-American campaign, you'll find a lot of that, too.

GREENE: We'll talk more about Russia in a moment, Russia, what they want two decades after the Cold War. And we want to hear from people who have been to Russia recently. Did you see anything that made you think that Russia is a threat? Our number is 800-989-8255. Our email address is talk@npr.org. Corey Flintoff, Julia Ioffe staying with us. I'm David Greene. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GREENE: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm David Greene. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Francis Fukuyama and others dubbed it the end of history: Western democratic ideals would spread, the thinking went. The U.S. would lead the way to a new future. The fight over political ideologies was won.

It hasn't quite worked out that way. As we see now in Georgia and Ukraine, a number of former Soviet states seem to be sliding back into Russia's sphere of influence and away from the United States, at least for the moment. We're talking, today, about what Russia might want and what that could mean for the United States.

We want to hear from people who have been to Russia recently. Did you see anything that made you think Russia is a threat? Our number is 800-989-8255. Our email address is talk@npr.org. Our guests, NPR foreign correspondent Corey Flintoff; and reporter for the New Republic, staff writer for the New Repulic, Julia Ioffe.

And Julia, let's just look ahead now. What were you impressions of this election in Georgia, and what do you see in terms of Georgia's future closer to Russia, closer to the United States, close to both, not close to both?

IOFFE: I think Russia and the U.S. have very little to do with this election. I think this is Georgia undergoing the very process that we talked about. It's just, you know, the transition to democracy is a messy and bumpy one. The fact that President - Russian President Medvedev, as you said, seemed to be gloating a little bit is a little bit ironic because Mikheil Saakashvili, who, again, ironically was a darling of America, had in the later years of his presidency started taking on some of the guises of Vladimir Putin, the way he controlled television, the way that he engineered the constitutional change that Corey mentioned in which, you know, he had two terms as president.

They were going to run out, and then this constitutional change would make him - would give the prime minister, which he kind of planned to become, he didn't plan on losing these parliamentary elections - the prime minister would have far more power than the president.

This is basically what Vladimir Putin did in 2008, when he stepped down as president, became prime minister and ruled the country from that post. So I don't know that, you know, Georgia may seem closer to America, but I don't know that American would have wanted - should have wanted to be close to a power like that.

I don't know that it's now becoming closer to Russia just because Ivanishvili is closer to - is, you know - isn't at odds with Russia.

GREENE: Was this just a matter of kind of having this feeling of end of history, this celebration, as it were, in countries like the United States about the Soviet collapse, but maybe expectations were different from sort of reality?

IOFFE: Well, you wanted to have, you know, the sailor kissing the nurse in Times Square at the Cold War, but, you know, there was no conflict that ended. Things kind of - it takes a long time. I think when we look back at this, this will still be part of this prolonged, messy period that we'll know as the kind of post-Soviet transition phase.

GREENE: Let's talk much more about that period, but I want to get a call here. This is John(ph) in Princeton, New Jersey. John, you're on TALK OF THE NATION, welcome.

JOHN: Hi. My question is about Gazprom. And Financial Times had an editorial sort of commentary saying that since the price of gas worldwide has dropped dramatically, it's now about 50 percent of what the Russian contracts with Europe are, and the Gazpromis the center of Putin's resource economy, resource-based expert economy, and he's giving jobs to the boys that this effect on Gazprom, of the drop in world gas prices, is going to cut into Gazprom. And that's going to cut into Putin's authority and his legitimacy as the resource export economy sort of collapses, or at least that part of it.

And gas exports are a huge part. Right now they export about a third of Europe's needs. But that's down from about 50 percent, and probably that's because Europe is now replacing Russian gas with cheaper gas on the world markets.

GREENE: Yeah, well, let me - that's a good question, and let me put it to both Corey and Julia. I mean, you have energy being so important to the Russian economy, so important for Putin's rise politically. How important is it, and is this a risky moment if prices go down?

FLINTOFF: It is said to be a risky moment. It may not be gas that does it, though. I mean, Gazprom is also primarily a petroleum producer. And, you know, given all the promises that President Putin made to the Russian electorate during the election campaign, if he's to keep all those promises, he needs to have oil at a very high price, I've heard as high as $120 a barrel, $117 a barrel, around there.

It has fallen substantially. Russia is not yet past the tipping point where it's really going to start hurting by this, but a prolonged period of low petroleum prices around the world could seriously cut into the Russian government's ability to deliver on its promises.

IOFFE: And the ability to deliver on its promises, which is, let's see, pensions, which are a huge part of the Russian federal budget, subsidizing utilities, all kinds of, you know, dole-outs that are a way to buy loyalty. And as for tipping point, it's very interesting if you consider that the Russian Ministry of Economics and Development actually themselves said their tipping point is now at $80 a barrel. That's a really expensive barrel of oil, and that's their crisis point.

GREENE: Let's take another call from Maryann(ph) in Midland, Texas. Maryann, you're on TALK OF THE NATION.

MARYANN: Yes.

GREENE: Go ahead.

MARYANN: I had a Fulbright Fellowship, and I taught at the Moscow State Pedagogical University. And it was in 2009, so Medvedev was still the president of the country. But, you know, I don't know a whole lot about the - I did not mingle with the high-up political officials, but my experience was that the people in Russia could not be nicer.

And they have no - I don't think that they have ill feelings toward the United States at all.

GREENE: Well, let me ask our guests: Is Russia a threat, and should Americans worry about it as a country? And also both of you, Julia, you just got back, and then Corey, you have just moved there. What are your impressions of the people there so far, since moving there? Thanks for the call, Maryann.

FLINTOFF: You know, actually there is a strain in Russia that inclines people to feel like they're a bit besieged, and this goes back throughout Russian history. There was a big re-enactment of the Napoleonic Battle of Borodino this fall, you know, so Russians remember invasions, and Russians do have a sense of being a kind of an island fortress, you know.

And that has been played upon by the Putin government, you know, who has used the United States very conveniently as a kind of a boogeyman. They U.S. wants to intervene in Russian politics, and that's what a lot of these rather repressive laws that have passed recently are connected to.

So, you know, I think Russian public opinion inclines a little bit this way, and I think that there is a kind of - it's not really xenophobia, but there's a kind of a sense of being besieged.

IOFFE: Which is, like you said, it's well-grounded. I mean, they tend to be invaded a lot, and every time they're invaded, it costs them very dearly in blood and treasure. They don't have the benefit of two oceans to protect them in the way the U.S. does.

Russians are, I mean as much as you can generalize about any one country, very friendly, and they're curious, and they're nice. That said, you scratch a little bit, and you tell them that you're an American journalist, and an eyebrow or two goes up. And actually, an activist that I met with in the Siberian city of Irkutsk in February was a young civil activists who was trying to help his city out, our meeting was videotaped, I was interviewing him for an article. It was then put up online, and it was said that he was getting State Department orders from me, which could not be farther from the truth.

And then a couple days later, he was beaten up.

GREENE: Well, that's a real suspicion, and then somebody beat him up after - because he had talked to you, or...?

IOFFE: I mean, I think it was connected just in general to his civil activism, but I think the fact that he talked to an American report/spy or whatever I was, did not help him.

GREENE: We have an email here from Leon(ph) in Fleming Island, Florida: I studied in Russia in 2002, 2003, the early Putin years, and found a country proud of their history and optimistic of their future. I felt that the Yeltsin years were a lost decade. The brain drain was beginning to slow. Foreign investment was increasing, and their leader was no longer a drunk.

I saw more parallels than differences. I would ask you to reverse your question: Is the United States a threat to Russia? Let's talk about - I mean, how should Americans who don't follow Russia that closely interpret this as a country? I want to Vladimir Putin as a leader in a moment, but a lot of stories they see is Putin, you know, not being a fan of democracy, not being a fan of human rights and being very repressive but a country that is beautiful. There's great literature. There's great music. A lot of Americans go and visit. I mean, is it threatening in the coming years? Is there a way for President Obama or if Mitt Romney wins a President Romney to work with Vladimir Putin? What can we expect?

IOFFE: Well, I think just to answer your listener's question, I think - I mean, and your question - Russia is a country like any other, and in fact Russia and America are very similar - huge countries with a slight imperial streak who are kind of myopic and tend to think that everybody around the world spends all their time thinking about them. You know, it's a country like any other. It's - and it's in the process of a big historical change. There's, you know, these pro-democracy protests that have been - that were happening all of winter and spring. It's unclear where that's going now. Huge economic change. It's still, like I said, it's still part of this long post-Soviet transition.

FLINTOFF: I think we need to, you know, to remember that this is no longer the Cold War, and that these are no longer the same countries in a lot of ways. You know, it used to be that Russia was in fact a military rival of the United States, and that is no longer true in any degree. Russia doesn't have the military might or the ability at least, you know, in this decade to be a military rival or a threat to the United States. So that's very important. It's all very well, you know, for Vladimir Putin to portray the U.S. as an enemy and use it for its own political internal purposes. But as far as Russia being a threat to us or us being a threat to them, I think that's not true.

IOFFE: Yeah. I wanted to add that the only way in which Russia is a threat is the way it's demonstrated itself to be a threat, which is the role of diplomatic spoiler. And a lot of...

GREENE: At the Security Council, at the U.N.

IOFFE: At the Security Council when - and into dealing with Iran even if it's helping behind the scenes. It wants to act the spoiler so that - then the West comes to it and tries to appease it. And so that it continues to play the role of super - of deciding superpower the way it had 20 decades ago. There's a lot of bruised ego there. As for the U.S. threat, Russians really like to think that we're a threat, and they're very, very hurt when you tell them that the Americans don't really care about Russia as much as they did 20 years ago. They're really surprised and really wounded that they're not a top geopolitical priority for us.

GREENE: Let's take a caller now from Father Peasis(ph) in Kansas City, Missouri. Father, did I get your name right?

FATHER PEASIS: Yes, very well. Thank you.

GREENE: Welcome to the program. Go ahead.

PEASIS: Thanks. I just returned last month from four weeks in Russia and three weeks in a few other Eastern European countries. I actually went from Kiev, concludes in Novosibirsk in the middle of Siberia.

GREENE: Wow. You get around.

PEASIS: And then I took the Trans-Siberian Railroad to Moscow. My purpose was not only to go to monasteries and churches but to visit villages and to talk with local people and to meet people. I definitely concur with those that don't see Russia as a current threat to the United States. I definitely would say that in meeting with many, many local people, they were concerned about the influence of mega corporations controlling the environment, like ANSATO. They were concerned about the influence of - instead of Western democracy, the idea of Western culture beginning to break down their own sense of values as a people.

And the other thing that I did find was just an incredible sense of hope for the future with many, many of the people that I met. And so I just wanted to share one perspective that was very positive from the experience of the people of Russia. I'm a convert to the Orthodox Christian faith, and I saw just a definite symbiosis that was taking place between faith and culture there. One of the fascinating things that I've found was, whereas it's gotten some bad press, I found that in talking with people they have a lot of hope for working together.

And I found the interesting thing within the Orthodox Church within Russia had a deep sense of respect for Islamic communities, especially in those that were in the south and that part of their work there was one of respect and trying to help them in terms of sense of protection and respect for them as people and a culture. So...

GREENE: Are you going to go back to Russia, Father?6

PEASIS: Oh, I'd love to. It was - I mean, it was an expensive trip, and it was, you know, I've been working on going there for 20 years, and it finally happened.

GREENE: You got it. Well, Father, thanks so much for the call. It was great to hear from you.

PEASIS: Thank you. Bye-bye.

GREENE: And we're going to be talking more about Russia. I'm David Greene in Washington. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And let's talk about this question of hope. Do Russians feel a sense of hope for their future and for what their country wants right now?

IOFFE: This also goes back to the email you got from a previous listener, right, who was there in 2003 and mentioned this kind of feeling of upswing and hope. That was there that part of the decade, and that was very much true. I remember going back there in 2004, 2005. It really felt like a place that was going places - (unintelligible) repeat that word. But people felt hopeful. People felt optimistic. The economy was booming. People were earning more money. They felt on top of the world.

That's not so much the case now, and I'm surprised that this - that Father - I forgot his name...

GREENE: Peasis.

IOFFE: ...mentioned the sense of hope in the villages. That's where I've seen the least amount of hope. The rural region in Russia are extremely depressed, and then the cities, especially the educated classes, or pretty much anybody you talk to are extremely pessimistic. This air of economic flowering has been on the decline for a couple of years now, and people feel that whatever economic boom there was in the first, you know, few years of the last decade have been swallowed up by corruption, by official incompetence, that the fruits of that have been squandered.

GREENE: And in the short time we have left, Julia, you were born in Russia, grew up in the United States, decided to go back as a journalist for a few years. You've completed that tour. What are your impressions? Are you glad you did this? And what did you learn about the country and yourself?

IOFFE: Very glad. I'm - yeah. I came back as the child of immigrants who left without ever turning their heads back. They left as political and religious refugees, and they still very much hate the place. And I kind of came back seeing Russia through that lens. I've come back with a much more nuanced view. There's a lot of things that I still don't like about Russia. You know, the fact that you have to use your passport for just about anything. If you forget your slip at the dry cleaners, you won't get your clothes back without a passport.

But there are things about it that I really love. The fact that people are extremely sincere and once you crack their kind of hard surface - I mean, this is a cliche, but it's true - they are friends for life. They will walk through fire for you. Also drinking with Russians is as, you know, we actually visited together one New Year's.

GREENE: It's a country that spends some time drinking, yeah.

IOFFE: Yeah. No. But I mean, the...

GREENE: It could be a dangerous thing for them, but it's also...

IOFFE: No. But the way you drink with Russians, this kind of soulful, joyful experience of it is awesome.

GREENE: Yeah. Julia Ioffe, staff writer for The New Republic, thanks so much for being here. It's great to see you.

IOFFE: Thank you.

GREENE: And NPR Moscow correspondent Corey Flintoff, thank you as always.

FLINTOFF: I'm very much looking forward to the experience that you two have had.

(LAUGHTER)

GREENE: (Unintelligible) back to Moscow soon. Up next, the real October surprises. The Washington Nationals and Oakland A's are headed to the postseason. NPR's Mike Pesca joins us with who's in, who's out and the biggest surprises of the season in Major League Baseball. So stick with us. I'm David Greene. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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