The Program, Putin. Putin’s similar interview was on Monday. Confirming my suspicion that caution is the ruling passion of The Team, he reminded his listeners of just how bad things were in the 1990s and said: “When the country faces hard times and is steering itself out of crisis, political stability is essential.” And “We survived a very difficult period in the 1990s. Only in the 2000s did we begin to rise up and establish internal peace.” Will Medvedev’s initiatives continue? “We are on the same page on strategic matters” and, later. “I want you to understand that we are doing this together”. He re-stated the larger aim, unchanged from many previous speeches: “Our main task is to ensure this country’s development and to improve people’s living standards” and enumerated the tasks as: “a stable political situation at home” with “an efficient and growing economy” “a fully secured defence capability” (a passage, by the way, that will be taken out of context; read it: just over half way down the page, answering Kulistikov). And he reiterated a favourite Medvedev theme that the economy is far too dependent on energy exports and must be diversified. Altogether quite complementary to Medvedev’s interview and, again, the emphasis that they are in agreement on the big issues.
The decision. The two interviews shed a little more light on the decision to switch places. It now appears that the switch was more conditional than first we heard. Medvedev intimated, as he has done a couple of times, that the fact that Putin’s popularity was higher was the decider. Putin intimated that Medvedev had set his style and strategic program and that as PM he can put it into effect. And through both interviews run the themes “stability” and “caution” and “cooperation”. The other great theme was that the job was not finished: improvements to be sure, but not there yet and a deep conviction that it could all fall apart yet.
Free trade. Putin announced that many CIS members had agreed, after years of negotiations, to set up a free trade zone which he hoped would be signed by the end of the year. They are Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Russia, Tajikistan and Ukraine. The original proposal came from, he said, President Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan about ten years ago. Nazarbayev has, indeed, been calling for closer economic ties for 20 years. In his interview he emphasised that this was a free trade zone (“We will put to use the competitive advantages that we inherited from previous generations, and we will transfer them to a new modern base”) mentioning the EU and NAFTA as examples. Not the re-creation of the USSR: “We are not interested in taking on excessive risk or creating extra work for countries that are lagging somewhat behind for various reasons”. (Indeed, what strength, by any scale of measurement, would Russia gain from absorbing, say, Tajikistan? Or Ukraine or Belarus, both of which are seeking loans to keep afloat? Territory yes, but at what cost? Unwilling populations, debts, economic stagnation; where’s the gain in that?)
Chechnya. Kadyrov announced that a commission of clergy and elders had, over the past year, resolved all blood feuds. If true, this is a substantial achievement.