Reading Between the Lines of the Bush/Putin Press Conference

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Ms. Klinghoffer is senior associate scholar at the Political Science department at Rutgers University, Camden, and the author of Vietnam, Jews and the Middle East. She is also an HNN blogger. Click here for her blog.

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Something rather extraordinary happened during the joint press conference held by presidents Bush and Putin in Bratislava. Vladimir Putin was placed on the dock accused of disloyalty to the Russian democracy and George W. Bush was forced into acting as his prosecutor. So upset were the Russian reporters that they reverted to their Soviet era behavior. Ironically, in so doing they prevented the subject from being changed, kept Putin on the defensive and the spotlight squarely on the sad decline of democracy in Russia. In other words, the press conference became an unintended, though most worthwhile, public shaming of the Russian president. In the end, this entirely unplanned news conference clarified to those who had any doubts on the subject that ultimately American-Russians disagreements on Iraq, Iran, Syria, North Korea or the WTO are secondary in importance. For they will not bring back the bad, old days of the Cold War but a totalitarian (a possibility Putin summarily rejected) and even an autocratic (a possibility he did not) Russia would.

I thought that the text of the press conference accompanied by analytical comments would help focus attention on the dynamics of this unusual press conference There was nothing out of the ordinary in the opening statements as Bush meant to use this opportunity to emphasize points of agreement in the same manner he did with his joint press conferences with the other European leaders. Then, an American journalist posed the following question: (my interpolation in italics):

Question: Mr. President, four years ago when you first met with President Putin, at a time some in the world were questioning his commitment to democracy, you reassured a lot of those critics by saying that you had looked into his soul and saw a man that you found trustworthy. You've just listed some concerns here today. I'm wondering if you could unequivocally and without reservation repeat that statement today? (You think you are really good in assessing people’s characters. But admit you were wrong about Putin.)

And, Mr. Putin, I'd like to ask you to address critics in the United States and elsewhere who saw Mr. Gorbachev and Mr. Yeltsin as taking early steps on the path to democracy and worry that you have reversed course. (In other words, aren’t we right to worry.)

PRESIDENT BUSH: One thing I -- gave me comfort in making the statement I made in Slovenia was that Vladimir said, when I agree with you, I'll agree with -- I'll tell you, and when I disagree with you, I'll tell you. In other words, we'll have a very frank and candid and open relationship. And that's the way it's been. There was no doubt in my mind what his position was on Iraq. He didn't kind of hedge, he didn't try to cloud up the issue. He made it abundantly clear to me that he didn't agree with my decision. And that's an important part of having a trustworthy relationship, a relationship where, when a person tells you something, you know he means what he says, and, "yes" means yes, and "no" means no. Sometimes in politics yes means "maybe," and no means "if." This is the kind of fellow who, when he says, yes, he means, yes, and when he says, no, he means, no. (I knew you were going to throw that phrase in my face. But I am not going to forget myself. I will though permit myself to needle my previous hosts by contrasting Putin’s straightforwardness with their duplicity. Let me remind you that Putin, unlike the other European leaders whose names better be left unmentioned during this goodwill trip, did not mislead me on the subject of Iraq.)

And we had a discussion about some decisions he's made. He's had some interest in the decisions I've made. And that's a very important dialogue. (It seems that here Bush was telling the truth as a meeting limited to the two presidents and their translators expected to take merely fifteen minutes ended up taking over an hour. And Bush is famous to his attachment to schedule. It would probably be thirty long years before the full content of the discussion is known and it may include significant surprises. For example, Lyndon Johnson personally made sure that the transcript of the closed meetings between himself and Kosygin was kept secret even from his closest advisors as it included the potentially politically explosive quid pro quo deal tying together the settlement of the Vietnam and the Six Day Wars.)

And as I said, I'll say it again, I think it's very important that all nations understand the great values inherent in democracy -- rule of law and protection of minorities, viable political debate. When I brought that -- I don't want to put words in -- Vladimir can speak for himself on this issue, but all I can tell you is, he said -- yes meant yes, when we talked about values that we share. (Here Bush tries to hint that Putin did reassure him privately that he will not continue to reverse Russian democratization while being very careful not to divulge anything they told each other in private. Still, Bush is careful to spell out the three of democratic principles against which Putin has transgressed – rule of law (the case of Yukos), protection of minorities (Chechnya) and political debate (muzzling of the press.)

PRESIDENT PUTIN: First of all, I would like to say that we discussed these issues at length, face to face, just the two of us. Russia has made its choice in favor of democracy. Fourteen years ago, independently, without any pressure from outside, it made that decision in the interests of itself and interests of its people -- of its citizens. (In other words, it was not pressure from Reagan but the initiative of Soviet/Russian leadership which led to the transformation of our regime.)

This is our final choice, and we have no way back. There can be no return to what we used to have before. And the guarantee for this is the choice of the Russian people, themselves. No, guarantees from outside cannot be provided. This is impossible. It would be impossible for Russia today. Any kind of turn towards totalitarianism for Russia would be impossible, due to the condition of the Russian society. (Even if I wanted I could not turn back the clock to the era of Soviet totalitarianism. It should be noted that he did not exclude authoritarianism.)

As far as the questions that are being discussed among our partners in the media, I can only repeat what has been said by the President of the United States. First, we are not going to make up -- to invent any kind of special Russian democracy; we are going to remain committed to the fundamental principles of democracy that have been established in the world. But, of course, all the modern institutions of democracy -- the principles of democracy should be adequate to the current status of the development of Russia, to our history and our traditions. (Russia is not ready for full democracy. For example, our governors were corrupt.)

There is nothing unusual here, either. In every country, these overall principles are embodied in this or that way. In electoral law, we can compare the United States and a number of European countries. In the operation of major democratic institutions, there may be some differences, but the main, fundamental principles are going to be implemented in the form in which they have been developed by the modern, civilized society. ( The relationship between the periphery and the center varies in democracies and my move to nominate governors lies squarely within the Russian tradition of centralized power)

As far as the preceding period in our development, no doubt the credit that can be given to that period in the development of the Russian Federation for the fact that the previous generation of politicians, despite all the difficulties that have arisen due to changes in Russia, they have given the main thing to the Russian people -- that is freedom. But I believe that a lot of people will agree with me, the implementation of the principles and norms of democracy should not be accompanied by the collapse of the state and the impoverishment of the people. (Chechnya and the post Soviet decline in living standards are too high a price to pay for freedom.)

We believe, and I personally believe, that the implementation and the strengthening of democracy on the Russian soil should not jeopardize the concept of democracy. It should strengthen statehood and it should improve living standards for the people. It is in this direction that we're going to act. (Freedom should be balanced with the need for a strong state and economic success)

Question (Russian Journalist): First of all, I wanted to ask another question, but we have an interesting conversation now, therefore I'm going to ask about the following: (You are embarrassing my president and my country and I am a proud Russian first and a reporter second.)

It seems to me that you have nothing to disagree about. The regimes that are in place in Russia and the U.S. cannot be considered fuller democratic, especially when compared to some other countries of Europe, for example -- for example, The Netherlands. (Neither Bush nor American reporters have any right to complain about us because American democracy is just as flawed as the Russian one.)

It seems to me, that as far as Russia is concerned, everything is clear, more or less. But as far as the U.S. is concerned, we could probably talk at length. I am referring to the great powers that have been assumed by the security services due to which the private lives of citizens are now being monitored by the state. This could be explained away by the consequences of September 11th, but this has nothing to do with democratic values. How could you comment on this? (In fact, Russian democracy is even superior to an American democracy under the USA PATRIOT act)

I suggest that you can probably agree -- you can probably shake hands and continue to be friends in future. (This suggestion highlights just how uncomfortable the reporter is the adversarial relations which exist in democracies between the government and the media. Of course, by asking the question, the Russian reporter merely adds fuel to the fire.)

PRESIDENT BUSH: I live in a transparent country. I live in a country where decisions made by government are wide open, and people are able to call people to -- me to account, which many out here do on a regular basis. (Relax. The American reporter meant no disrespect to your president. Such pointed questioning is normal in the U.S.)

Our laws, and the reasons why we have laws on the books, are perfectly explained to people. Every decision we have made is within the Constitution of the United States. We have a Constitution that we uphold. And if there is a question as to whether or not a law meets that Constitution, we have an independent court system, through which that law is reviewed. (In other word, the Patriot Act was legislated by Congress and if it crosses the line, the Supreme Court can vacate it.)

So I'm perfectly comfortable in telling you, our country is one that safeguards human rights and human dignity, and we resolve our disputes in a peaceful way. (Anarchy and/or civil war are not the logical outcome of democratic advocacy of human rights and it is fallacious to so posit it.)

PRESIDENT PUTIN: I would like to support my American counterpart. I'm absolutely confident that democracy is not anarchy. It is not a possibility to do anything you want. It is not the possibility for anyone to rob your own people. Democracy is, among other things, and first and foremost, the possibility to democratically make democratic laws and the capability of the state to enforce those laws. (Putin returns to the need to protect citizens from lawlessness and corruption.)

You have cited a curious example -- The Netherlands. The Netherlands is a monarchy, after all. I have no doubts about the democratic nature of that country. That is certainly a democratic nation, but this is very different from the United States and Russia. (If a monarchy can be such a model democracy, why not a Russian-style central government?)

There are great differences between Russia and the U.S., as well. If we talk about where we have more or where we have less democracy is not the right thing to do. But if we talk about how the fundamental principles of democracy are implemented in this or that historic soil, in this or that country, is an option, it's possible. This does not compromise the dignity of The Netherlands or Russia or the U.S. (Relax, nobody is attacking Russia. Let’s change the subject.)

Question (Western Journalist): on some of the decisions he has made on his democratic institutions, or have you just agreed to disagree? And, President Putin, did anything President Bush say to you today prompt you to reconsider some of those decisions? (Forget it. I am smelling blood.)

PRESIDENT BUSH: I think the most important statement that you heard, and I heard, was the President's statement, when he declared his absolute support for democracy in Russia, and they're not turning back. To me, that is the most important statement of my private meeting, and it's the most important statement of this public press conference. (I just realized that Putin said in public what he told me in private and this is a good opportunity to put him on the record on this subject.)

And I can tell you what it's like dealing with the man over the last four years: When he tells you something, he means it. He asked what some of my concerns were, and he explained answers. I told him that it was very important that capital see rule of law, that there be stability, there not be any doubt about whether or not -- if somebody invests, whether or not the laws change. And I think Vladimir heard me loud and clear, and he explained why he made decisions he made. (You cannot use the post-Soviet impoverishment and the corruption of economic oligarchs to justify the troubling case of Yukos. If you want to develop your economy, you need foreign investment and your opportunistic treatment of the law has and will continue to scare them way. I told him so.)

But we had very frank discussions about a variety of issues. And the operative -- again, the operative statement, the summary statement that I think is important for people to hear in our countries, precisely his opening statement to King's question -- speaking about monarchies. Anyway. Get it? (Laughter.) It's late in the trip. Which is, firm belief in democracy. And I appreciate that. (Oops . . I should not have said so much. Let’s see if I can laugh it away.)

PRESIDENT PUTIN: I have already mentioned that we have paid a lot of attention to these issues. I get the impression that sometimes the public in the now partner countries do not have the full knowledge and, consequently, do not have the full understanding of what is taking place in the Russian Federation. Naturally, within our countries, there are people who are in favor and there are those who are opposed to the decisions that are being made -- for example, the decision on the new procedure for the election of regional leaders in the Russian Federation. (They just do not understand Russia.)

But those who are opposed are richer than those who are in favor -- they have the opportunity to spread their opinion in the media, and we often do not pay the attention to that. (Time for good old fashion talk of class warfare.)

I'd like to draw your attention to the fact that the leaders of the regions of the Russian Federation will not be appointed by the President. Their canvases will be presented, will be submitted to regional parliaments that are elected through secret ballot by all the citizens. This is, in essence, a system of the electoral college, which is used, on the national level, in the United States, and it is not considered undemocratic, is it? (The reporter was right. The U.S. is not a direct democracy either.)

We discussed these issues at length and some of the ideas -- I wouldn't say, advice -- but some of the ideas that I heard from my partner I respect a lot. And I believe that some of his ideas could be taken into account in my work, and I will pay due attention to them, that's for sure. Some other ideas, I will not comment on. Thank you. (Advice! Your president is not the boss of me!)

Question (Russian Journalist): To follow up on the issue of democratic institutions, President Bush recently stated that the press in Russia is not free. What is this lack of freedom all about? Your aides probably mentioned to you that our media, both electronic and our printed media -- full coverage of the manifestations and protests in our country. Our regional and national media often criticize the government institution. (I am free. We are free. We even reported about the pensioners’ demonstrations.)

What about you? Why don't you talk a lot about violations of the rights of journalists in the United States, about the fact that some journalists have been fired? Or do you prefer to discuss this in private with your American colleague? (You fired Rather and Jordan. How dare you talk of freedom of the press in the U.S.?)

PRESIDENT BUSH: I don't know what journalists you're referring to. Any of you all still have your jobs? No, I -- look, I think it's important any viable democracy has got a free and active press. Obviously, if you're a member of the Russian press, you feel like the press is free. And that's -- feel that way? Well, that's good. (Laughter.) But I -- I talked to Vladimir about that. And he -- he wanted to know about our press. I said, nice bunch of folks. And he wanted to know about, as you mentioned, the subject of somebody getting fired. People do get fired in American press. They don't get fired by government, however. They get fired by their editors or they get fired by their producers, or they get fired by the owners of a particular outlet or network. (This is really troubling. I have just spent quite a bit of time explaining to Vladimir that I did not and cannot fire journalists like Rather. That is not to say I do not wish I could. I am really surprised to discover that you guys really think I can. Soros better run some more democratic workshops in Russia.)

But a free press is important. And it is -- it is an important part of any democracy. And if you're a member of the press corps and you feel comfortable with the press in Russia, I think that is a pretty interesting observation for those of us who don't live in Russia to listen to. (Let’s not forget to be humble and charming.)

But no question, whether it be in America or anywhere else, the sign of a healthy and vibrant society is one in where there's an active press corps. Obviously, there has got to be constraints. There's got to be truth. People have got to tell the truth, and if somebody violates the truth, then those who own a particular newspaper or those who are in charge of particular electronic station need to hold people to account. The press -- the capacity of the press to hold people to account also depends on their willingness to self-examine at times when they're wrong. And that happens on occasion in America. And that's -- that's an important part of maintaining a proper relationship between government and press. (Still, let me explain that while I cannot fire reporters, their bosses can and, at times, do.)

I can assure you that the folks here are constantly trying to hold me to account for decisions I make and how I make decisions. I'm comfortable with that. It's part of the checks and balances of a democracy. (Reporters check my power and media owners check those of reporters.)

And so I'm glad to hear you're editorial comment, so to speak, on your comfort with the situation of the press corps in the Federation of Russia.

PRESIDENT PUTIN: First of all, what do you mean when you say, I keep silent -- or we keep silent about this or that problem? First of all, I'm not the minister of propaganda. (Apparently the first part of the question was not recorded as it seems that the Russian reporter took Putin to task for not defending his position in aggressive enough a manner. In other words, she accused him of losing the propaganda battle.)

Second, we discuss all issues in absolute openness. As George said, today we discussed this issue, as well, with regard to Russia and the United States. But what is absolutely obvious is that in the United States, there are a lot of mechanisms to uphold the freedom of the press. And as far as the fact that there is some kind of friction between the media and the government, there is an ongoing debate, an ongoing critical debate going on. There is a lot of criticism coming from the media with respect to the government. This is a manifestation of democracy. What you mentioned about the comments in the media of the actions of the Russian government is testimony to the fact that we do have freedom of the press. Although we're being criticized often of that, this is not the case. (You are right. Russia does have freedom of the press.)

When we discuss these issues, absolutely frankly, we, and I, in particular, do not think that this has to be pushed to the foreground, that new problems should be created from nothing. And I do not think that we should jeopardize the Russian-American relationship, because we're interested in the development of this relationship. We are paying close attention to all the comments of the press or opposing forces, but our responsibility is to, in spite of all these problems of which there are plenty, our responsibility is to positively develop the Russian-American relationship. (I am not going to let foolish pride destroy a relationship as important as our relation with the U.S.)

I would like to thank the President of the United States for his constructive dialogue that we've had today. Thank you very much. (Now let me get out of here. These is not an experience I would ever wish to repeat.)


I watched this press conference and I believe that missing from this transcript is a comment by Putin to the effect that he permitted Conoco to buy shares of Yukos which had previously belonged to the Russian government. Clearly, Putin was trying to convince the Americans and most especially Bush (the oil man!) that the Russian oil market remains open to them. This reminded me of Kosygin telling Johnson in Glassboro that the USSR has no intention of interfering with American oil interests in the Middle East. Then, as now, the president’s advisors are amazed and disturbed by what they perceive to be the limits of their counterpart’s understanding of the American system and modes of thought. Such misunderstanding, they worry may result in a major miscalculation leading to tragic consequences.

Luckily, the post Cold War period is still a much safer than the Cold War period was. Still, if it is to remain so, the media can do worse than to shame dictators or leaders impatient with the imperfections of the democratic process who are tempted to become dictators. Indeed, far from being insulted, Russians should realize that it was the media’s belief that Russia can still be saved which leads it to hold Putin’s feet to the fire. Chinese, North Korean, Vietnamese or, indeed, until very recently Arab leaders, do not face the same kind of pointed questioning. They are dismissed as lost causes. I wish they were not. As the prickliness of the Russian reporters demonstrates, people prefer to be proud of their countries. Hence, shaming can be an enormously powerful tool in furthering the peaceful growth of democracy.

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More Comments:

Arnold Shcherban - 3/2/2005

Ms. Klinghoffer,

I know more about Putin than the great majority on these boards, so I don't need to read anything to realize that
Putin is not a democrat and never was and, besides my post
was making completely different point.
So, if you are willing to respond to the contents of my post, you are welcome.
Actually Putin has done much more for Russian general populace (not for oligarchs and foreign investors, may be)
than his predecessors, more e.g. than such great democratization fighter as Eltsin was considered to be on the West, who actually sold the country to oligarchs in exchange for political power, certainly extraordinary example of "democratic reforms" in the minds of the US financial and political elite, closely resembling the methods they maintain the respective positions by, here at home.
Alas, I think no one person, no matter how great or evil
he is can change much there; that country is pretty much
doomed to remain a Third World country for many years to come with all consequences normally following from such position.

Judith Apter Klinghoffer - 3/2/2005

Click here: The New York Times > International > Europe > Letter From Europe: Investors of the World, Here's the Word on Putin (March 2, 2005). Worth reading.

Arnold Shcherban - 3/1/2005

Excellent rebuff, Mr. Dalrymple.

That's exactly why I weant to suggest Ms. Klinghoffer another title for her article: "The Saint and a sinner".

I would like also to stress (as I tried to do again, and again on these boards) the importance of the historical approach to history?! That is one main feature missing
from the articles of the majority of these boards's historians, when they discuss "unfriendly" (from their perspective) nations.
Because hardly any other nation in the world can be measured by this country's relative success story with its
unique history, geographic location, and absense of any
"legitimate" neighboring threat not just to its existence, but to the well-being of its citizens in the course of the last one-a-half centuries.
It perhaps should be also added that I don't know any nation to which full-fledged democracy and freedoms arrived and sustained while great majority of its populace were impoverished to a pretty miserable degree.
Would Ms. Klinghoffer be so kind as to enlighten me in on the latter issue, if case I missed any country?
And the last, the fact that I have first-hand knowledge of, the very reforms that the US and its democratic zealots and economic experts were pushing Russia to
were the main cause of that impoverishement on the tremendous scale, and of the consequent reverse of the attempts to democratize Russian society. The open resistance is coming from the general populace, not from the power-holders, as Ms. Klinghoffer, and her ideological peers try to picture it.

James H Dalrymple - 3/1/2005

The vast majority of humanity no longer sees America as the protector of freedom and human rights, in fact many Europeans see America as the exact opposite. 100,000 dead Iraqi’s, torture, detention without trial, war crimes and pre-emption have not gone unnoticed. On top of that add the rapaciousness of corporations, which are widely viewed as the main power and driving force behind American action. This is the reality you need to come to terms with, you may treat the Russians as chumps but don’t come preaching freedom over here until your hands are clean.

Hence, shaming can be an enormously powerful tool in furthering the peaceful growth of democracy.