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Katrina vanden Heuvel on U.S.-Russian Relations

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President Bush is due to meet Russian president Vladimir Putin in the Slovakian capital of Bratislava today on the last leg of his European tour. We examine U.S.-Russian relations with Katrina Vanden Heuvel, editor of the Nation magazine. [includes rush transcript]

President Bush is due to meet Russian president Vladimir Putin in the Slovakian capital of Bratislava today on the last leg of his European tour.

The meeting is expected to be dominated by the political situation in Russia with Bush calling on Putin to maintain democracy. The Kremlin’s centralization of power and curtailment of press freedoms have come under criticism as well as the Russian government’s alleged role in the break-up of energy giant Yukos.

Bush is reportedly under pressure from some senior politicians to make clear to Putin that his friendship with the US is at risk. Two senior senators have even called for Russia to be stripped of its membership of the G8 group of industrialized nations.

The summit is also expected to cover nuclear terrorism, Washington’s stance on Iran, North Korea, Russian arms sales, and the increasing U.S. influence in former Soviet republics. Agreements on safeguarding nuclear materials and curbing the sale of shoulder-launch missile systems are expected to be signed.

Bush set the tone for today’s meeting with Putin at a keynote address in Brussels on Tuesday.

  • President Bush, speaking in Brussels, Belgium, February 21, 2005.
  • Katrina Vanden Heuvel, editor of The Nation and longtime analyst on U.S.-Russian relations.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Bush set the tone for today’s meeting with Putin at an address in Brussels earlier this week.

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: For Russia to make progress as a European nation, the Russian government must renew a commitment to democracy and the rule of law. We recognize that reform will not happen overnight. We must always remind Russia, however, that our alliance stands for a free press, a vital opposition, the sharing of power, and the rule of law. The United States and all European countries should place democratic reform at the heart of their dialogue with Russia.

AMY GOODMAN: President Bush speaking on his European tour. We’re joined by Katrina vanden Heuvel, the editor of The Nation magazine and a Russia expert.

KATRINA VANDEN HEUVEL: Thank you, Amy. Thank you, Juan.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the significance of this last leg of the trip, the meeting between Bush and Putin?

KATRINA VANDEN HEUVEL: Well, what a difference a few years make. If you recall when they met in Slovenia a few years ago, Bush looked into Putin’s eyes and soul, and saw a man he could do business with and trust. There has been in the last year or so, in both capitals, a drumbeat for a kind of cold peace or renewed cold war. The explanations for that are many. I would argue that, of course, we have seen a rollback of the fragile democracy in Russia, but there’s a history to it. As Gore Vidal often says, America, it’s the United States of Amnesia. We need to remember that 20 years this March is when Mikhail Gorbachev came to power and launched Perestroika, an end to the Communist Party’s dominance, and Glasnosts and end to censorship. We have seen steadily an erosion of those democratic freedoms, beginning under Yeltsin who launched the war in Chechnya, and allowed an oligarchical class to loot the country, and did erode some press freedoms. Putin is a creation of the policy of Yeltsinization. He was brought in to safeguard Yeltsin and the oligarchs. We need to think of that as a backdrop. But I think coming out of this meeting with all of the bluster of democracy on the part of, we going to see ongoing engagement and constructive relations. Let’s not forget that so much US-Russian or Soviet relationships have depended on personal relationships between two men. Putin went out of his way publicly, to endorse Bush’s re-election. I mean, so there’s a whole history here. So, I think that we’re not going to see a lot of change. We’re going to see focus on the ongoing, quote, “joint fight against the war on terrorism,” which helps Putin at home. Also, efforts on nuclear non-proliferation.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, we have seen this week, for instance, President Bush suddenly turn the spotlight on democracy in Russia, and on the failings within the Russian society itself.


JUAN GONZALEZ: What do you think is driving that particularly, especially given the public protests within Russia in recent months, and the obviously continued problem of major deterioration of life for the average Russian person?

KATRINA VANDEN HEUVEL: You know, Juan. What has to do with Bush’s ongoing talk about democracy has more to do with one oil oligarch who sits in prison, who should not be in prison, but who sits in prison because of the looting of a country, stripping the country’s assets for his company’s use. There has been a campaign in the United States by public relations people, by lobbyists, by senators who have been contacted by those lobbyists to link that man’s fate to the future of democracy in Russia. I think that most economists would argue that you need some form of bringing back those assets which were stripped in the 1990’s into the control of the state. One hopes that the state would use it wisely for the purposes of the people. But where has the mainstream press been on focusing on the hundreds of thousands of elderly people, of students, of even military people who have gone into the streets in the last month, six weeks, to protest the undermining, the abolition of their social benefits. These are people whose lives were already impoverished by the shock therapy economic policies and the ruble devaluation. So I’m just saying let’s focus on the range of problems in that country, and not simply on the fact that you have one oil oligarch sitting in prison, and that’s where the campaign and detention in the rollback on democracy was started and it is fixated at this moment.

AMY GOODMAN: What about the relation between Russia and Iraq and particularly the issue of oil there?

KATRINA VANDEN HEUVEL: I think Russia is in the community of European nations when it comes, of course, to the opposition to the war. It stood with France and Germany and others in its opposition. Certainly, Russia had its own relationship with Iraq. It had its own oil contracts, provided a lot of the oil equipment. But I think that even there, Putin was ready to step back from that fierce opposition, and by the way, there is a view inside Moscow that Putin is under pressure from people inside his government, because there’s a view that he’s given so many concessions to the West, the shredding of the ABM Treaty, nothing in return, the garrisoning of US troops in bases in Central Asia to help in the so-called War against Terrorism, and that has led to his being under assault. I think that what we may see that there was some discussion, that the Russians might send troops to Iraq, but I doubt that will come out of this meeting. It will be very focused, as you were saying earlier, on the nuclear non-proliferation agreements, particularly with this national intelligence council report coming out on the eve of the summit, showing the theft of radioactive materials and nuclear materials from Soviet bases.

AMY GOODMAN: What about that?

KATRINA VANDEN HEUVEL: Well, talk about keeping one’s eyes on the prize. I mean, I’m sure in your program you have talked about the folly — the folly, the criminal to folly of the war in Iraq, and how it has really been an act of sabotage in the real fight against terrorism. The real danger of weapons of mass destruction in the world today, I think many people would argue is the insecure decrepit, decaying materials in the former Soviet Union, which are open to perhaps Chechens who want to use them in the ongoing genocidal war in that republic. It’s a very dangerous situation. There should be much more attention to working together in that area.

JUAN GONZALEZ: What about the Chechen war? 100,000 people are now dead since 1994. And the Bush administration’s perspective and view on that? Is it seeing it more as a war against terrorism, or as a war as a fight for self-determination?

KATRINA VANDEN HEUVEL: This has suited Putin very nicely. That’s why he has been an ally of Bush’s, because for Putin to say that the war in Chechnya, now the second war launched initially by Yeltsin, renewed by Putin, that it’s a war against terrorism allows him to ignore the fact of the political nationalistic roots. Of course it has metastasized. There have been possibly al-Qaeda forces, but it’s a nationalistic struggle on the most part, and Putin has avoided the possibility of political negotiation, which exists, and that’s a longer story, but one could see political negotiation. There is one Chechen leader who has condemned those who committed the crimes in Beslan in the schoolhouse.

AMY GOODMAN: The massacre in the schoolhouse.

KATRINA VANDEN HEUVEL: The massacre in the schoolhouse last September, and in the Moscow theater two years ago. Aslan Maskadov is ready to negotiate. He has denounced Basayef, who’s the more radical extremist Chechen leader.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Katrina Vanden Heuvel, editor of The Nation magazine. The Russian president, Vladimir Putin, and Iran, saying he’s going to make soon a state visit to Iran saying that Iran has not developed nuclear capability.

KATRINA VANDEN HEUVEL: Well, I mean, in some ways he’s echoing it seems to me Mohammed El Baradei, the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency. What’s going on there is again a long alliance with Iran. Again, it’s the culmination of a view that Moscow has received no concessions from the United States, and it’s an economic arrangement in many ways, and a view that Russia says it will bring back the spent fuels back to Moscow. Of course, again, here I think Moscow is more in sync in terms of working with the British, French and German Euro-troika group, to negotiate a way to contain Iran’s nuclear ambitions and a view if you really want to help democracy and bring dissidents, some strength in Iran, you don’t stigmatize them by make them be perceived as proxies of US power inside Iran, you allow them as Sharin Ebadi, the Nobel Peace Prize winner wrote the other day, to find their own voice and build their own indigenous fights inside their country. But this of course will be another source of contention in the ongoing contentious relationship, as will be Moscow’s decision to sell weapons Syria. And Hugo Chavez was in Moscow about a month ago. There, too, there was discussion of arms agreements. Let us hope that someday sanity will prevail and there will be no arms sales anywhere, but at the moment this has been a source of great cash for Moscow.

JUAN GONZALEZ: The role of the press and of free elections, do you think that President Bush has anything to say to President Putin about that at this summit, given the problems and the scandals in the Bush administration over its use of the press versus what’s going on in Russia currently?

KATRINA VANDEN HEUVEL: This president has not been deterred by his own scandals or the undermining of press freedom in this country to go around lecturing the world. It is something to behold. In Russia, I would simply say that I have many friends I worked with in the late 1980’s, ’90, ’91, they would make the case there was more press freedom then than there is now. On the other hand, the print press in Moscow is as free, or freer, in terms of the diversity of views than in this country. In Moscow, the state television is controlled, but again, the situation, there is a parallel where you have had the wealthy oligarchs and corporations come in and take over television and use the channels to express their own points of view, but as press freedom has been undermined in this country as a result of Iraq, Chechnya in Russia has been exploited by the Putin administration to undermine press freedom.

AMY GOODMAN: Condoleezza Rice, the new Secretary of State, actually her background, she is a Russia, Soviet expert.


AMY GOODMAN: What about that? How does that weigh in here?

KATRINA VANDEN HEUVEL: Well, her PhD was really on Soviet military transfers to the Czech Republic. She is a technocrat. She is someone who was a protégé of Brent Scowcroft and in that capacity many years ago, I have to divulge that she coordinated a meeting at Camp David when there was a discussion about whether Gorbachev was real. Many people, even Alexander Haig, a name from the past, thought he was “a Stalin in Gucci shoes,” and I quote. She brought my husband, Steven Cohen to Camp David to debate with Richard Pipes whether Gorbachev should be someone to be doing business with. I think the decision was made, and Bush’s father proceeded to work with Gorbachev to end the cold war, squandered opportunity as we sit here today. But she is clearly a woman who has her finger in the political winds. She’s shifted in many ways since then. And Brent Scowcroft, her mentor, has been pretty scathing in his indictment of not only her position on the middle east, but her capacity, even as a National Security Adviser. We’ll see what she does as the State Department Adviser. But she is now Bush’s, you know, right hand person. She’s not going to deviate. She’s lecturing as fast as she can as well.

JUAN GONZALEZ: The elections in the Ukraine.


JUAN GONZALEZ: What is going to be the long term impact on US-Russian relations of the differences and the conflicts that developed over that election?

KATRINA VANDEN HEUVEL: There’s no question that that of course, also opened the fissures of the relationship. I think that the new President Yuschenko is going to have to do business with Russia, for energy, for jobs. Half of the Ukraine is very closely tied to Russia, by family and by history. There’s also Georgia where we have seen the United States play a very interesting role in funding, in building bases again in the name of fighting terror. But you know, there’s a view in this country that Russia has no interests. I think that’s a view that dominates the United States in its approach to many countries at the moment, that only the United States, as the superpower the lone superpower, can dictate to the world. My view is in this next period, we’re going to see Russia perhaps carving out relations, as we see quickly with India, with China, and with a new grouping of nations, so that you will have another regional power to counter the United States. But the Ukraine, I think one interesting thing to watch there, the prime minister, a very fiery, passionate, anti-Russian woman, Yulia Tymoshenko, has said they’re going to re-open all the privatization deals done under the previous prime minister. I will be interested to see how the press in this country treats that as opposed to how it has criticized Putin’s attempts to bring back the looted assets into the control of the state. One hopes for the purposes of investing in his country.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, how Afghanistan fits into this picture. A new report out, disaster, country in chaos. Worst education system in the world.


AMY GOODMAN: Main source of heroin for the world. Russia, of course …

KATRINA VANDEN HEUVEL: On the border of Afghanistan.

AMY GOODMAN: … was in Afghanistan for a while, the Soviet Union.

KATRINA VANDEN HEUVEL: Of course, what it faces as the blowback of the drug trade. There’s a serious drug problem and spiraling aids crisis in Russia, but the blowback of the drug trade coming out of Afghanistan. That’s of great concern in Moscow and in the regions around many of those -stans, as we call them, interestingly like Uzbekistan and others, are now finding new relationships with Russia, coming back. There may be a new kind of regional grouping there.

AMY GOODMAN: The u.s. Is building bases in all of these -stans.

KATRINA VANDEN HEUVEL: But I think there’s a backlash against that. But in the sense of Afghanistan I think that most of all, Amy, you see they’re the skewed priorities where again, Europe, and Bush being there, has probably heard a lot about: Let’s stop it with this war on terror. This should not be the focus of our foreign policy. Let us think about development. Afghanistan, without an infusion of development aid, is going to become a failed state again, after decades, after the war, which was supposed to liberate its women, its people, its children. And that, to me, I think is an overriding lesson one hopes that Bush has heard coming out of Europe.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we want to thank you very much for being with us.


AMY GOODMAN: Katrina vanden Heuvel, editor of The Nation magazine.

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