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Putin Discusses China and Energy at Dinner

NOVO-OGARYOVO, Moscow Region -- Over a dinner in his suburban residence, President Vladimir Putin reveled in Russia's new friendship with China, described himself as a "citizen" rather than a politician, and reiterated his intention to leave office in 2008.

"We would like you to feel the desire on our part to work absolutely openly," Putin announced at the start of the meeting Saturday with a group of leading foreign academics and journalists specializing in Russia known as the Valdai Discussion Club.

The group -- brought together by RIA-Novosti, the nongovernmental Council on Foreign and Defense Policy, Russia Profile, The Moscow Times and Russia in Global Affairs -- was created to foster dialogue and improve Russia's image abroad. Keeping with Russia's agenda for the Group of Eight summit in July, this year's sessions in Moscow and Khanty-Mansiisk focused on energy security.

Unlike the previous two annual meetings, the experts asked relatively softball questions over the dinner of octopus carpaccio, langoustine and zucchini lasagna, followed by warm figs with yogurt sorbet.

Responding to a question from Georgetown University professor Angela Stent, Putin said he would like to "depart from the terminology of the past" and not use the term "energy superpower," which, he said, "is deliberately fed to the media in order to bring about an association with the horrible Soviet Union."

"I have never said that Russia is some sort of a superpower," Putin said. "But we have more [energy] resources than most other countries."

He said Russia would only be ready to grant foreign companies access to the "heart" of its economy -- production and transportation of hydrocarbons -- when the state knew what the country would get in return. Putin complained that Russia was denied access to European technologies and markets.

Putin said Russia tried to hire a U.S. lobbyist but the lobbyists in Washington balked, citing the State Department. The State Department denied issuing a warning, Putin said. "At least one of them was lying to us," he said.

"This is a small detail," Putin added. "Simply, there is this presumption of guilt in regard to the Soviet Union that has been automatically extended to Russia."

Putin reiterated Russia's position on the Iranian nuclear program, generally perceived as a hardening of Moscow's approach to Tehran.

Putin acknowledged that new countries on the cusp of acquiring the nuclear bomb was a global issue. Iran is particularly serious because "neither Brazil nor South Africa set a goal in their constitutions to eliminate other states" -- which Iran has done vis-a-vis Israel.

"As far as potential sanctions are concerned," he said, "it would be better if we manage to avoid them."

Clifford Kupchan, a member of the Eurasia Group who raised the issue of Iran, said later that Putin had gone further than before. "In the tone of his comments he was closer to the U.S. position than any other Russian official," he said.

This was not the only area where Putin positioned himself as more pro-Western than the average Russian. When Andrew Kuchins of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace told Putin that U.S. President George W. Bush was concerned about rising anti-American sentiment on Russian state television, Putin said: "They [the media] say what people want to hear. It is not part of the media's job description to look into the future of Russian-American relations. There is a difference between the mood of the society and the policy of the Russian government."

Putin stressed his good relations with Bush.

Between courses, Putin told Nikolai Zlobin of Washington's World Security Institute that he saw some of Bush's aides as "enemies," Zlobin said. Curiously, Zlobin said, Bush recently made similar remarks about Putin's advisers.

In off-the-microphone comments that could only be partly heard across the table, Putin also said he did not see himself as a politician but as a "citizen" governed by what he sees as best for the country. Yet, he said, he is surrounded by politicians with a different mentality.

"I look at things from the viewpoint of conscience and morals," Zlobin quoted Putin as saying. "When the choice is between a politically more correct and a morally justified decision, I make the moral decision."

The East and SCO

Much of the dinner conversation was dedicated to Asia. Putin said his country's close ties with China were unprecedented and that he was impressed by the progress of Chinese reforms. Thanking Shanghai University professor Feng Shaolei for an invitation to speak at the university, Putin said he could not compare the Shanghai he had seen in 1994, when he traveled there as deputy St. Petersburg mayor, with the Shanghai he saw earlier this year.

"It's a splendid, outstanding world city," he said. "It overwhelms, it overwhelms!"

Putin reported that 250 kilometers of pipeline to China had been built in the last two months.

While Russia sends 3 percent of its energy exports to Asia, he said, it planned to raise the share to 30 percent in 15 to 20 years.

Asked about the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, a security body that includes Russia, China and four Central Asian states, Putin said he had a "revelation" to make.

"We never planned for the Shanghai Cooperation Organization to develop so much," he said. "It was created with a utilitarian purpose -- as a mechanism to solve border issues between the People's Republic of China and neighboring states."

Trying to sooth Western concerns over the organization's intentions, Putin said Russia would approach its expansion "with great caution."

"After the fall of the bipolar world, there is an evident demand in the world for some alternative center of influence. We see it and we react to it, but we don't plan it."

Kosovo's Independence

Turning to Europe, Putin reiterated his position that granting independence to Kosovo would supply an unwelcome precedent in light of ongoing conflicts in Nagorno-Karabakh, Transdnestr, South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

Russia might exercise its veto in the UN Security Council if the question of Kosovo's independence came up without taking Serbia into account, Putin said. "It is an extreme measure, of course, but it does not exist to simply lie about in a chest," he said.

He expressed bitterness about a rift with the West over a 2004 plan for a settlement in Moldova's breakaway region of Transdnestr. And he called protests against a Baltic pipeline from Russia to Germany "clearly political," likening them to U.S. resistance to the first major gas pipeline between the Soviet Union and West Germany in the 1970s.

He added that Russian-U.S. relations would benefit from a strengthened Europe.

Babies and Rosneft

Answering a question on demography from French historian Helene Carrere d'Encausse, Putin said he would prefer to boost the birth rate and decrease mortality while accepting only as many immigrants as Russia could assimilate.

"It is important to think about the interests of the native population, because if we don't, we will create conditions for the growth of radical organizations."

The recent ethnic riots in Kondopoga and the situation in the North Caucasus did not come up. Putin himself raised the issue of Russia's democracy, saying the strengthening of the multiparty system and "real self-government" would be left to his successor. He said his successor would also have to tackle corruption.

Marshall Goldman, a professor of Russian economics at Harvard, asked what conflicts of interest government officials face when leading presumably commercial companies.

"I find it difficult to understand how Mr. Sechin can be objective when he deals with oil companies other than Rosneft," Goldman said. Kremlin deputy head Igor Sechin chairs Rosneft's board.

Putin replied: "They don't work there. They represent the state's interests in companies where the state owns a share. Mr. Sechin has no problem with objectivity because he doesn't run Rosneft. Would it be better for independent experts and lawyers to represent state interests? Perhaps, one day we will grow up for that. So far, whenever we have had experts and lawyers in such positions, they have tended to start their own private businesses."

Putin swiftly changed the subject. "There is a criminal case currently under way in the United States involving those who had been involved with privatizations in our country. It turned out that, one, they were CIA agents and, two, they lined their pockets at our expense."

Putin did not identify the purported agents, but he appeared to be referring to former Harvard professor Andrei Shleifer and his associate Jonathan Hay, who U.S. prosecutors say improperly invested in companies that they were helping the Russian government regulate in the 1990s.

Commenting on the Ukraine gas dispute in January, which led to gas shortages in Europe, Putin said the resulting Western criticism had been prompted by a desire to show support for the Orange Revolution. "If you support it, pay for it. Otherwise, you want to have political dividends, and we are supposed to pay for it."

But Putin praised Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko as a "reliable politician" for signing a five-year agreement with Russia on the transit of gas to Europe.

Asked about the role of religion, Putin defended the prominence of the Russian Orthodox Church. "The church has always played a huge role in Russia. It was an institution that created Russian statehood. It was both a school of morals and an administrative structure."

He said had recently discovered through church records that his his father's side of the family had settled in a village about 120 kilometers outside Moscow in 1680.

What About 2008?

The question of 2008 was brought up by the director of the French Institute of International Relations, Thierry de Montbrial, who asked Putin how he would react to popular demands to stay in office.

Putin said that although most Russians would support him for a third term, it was a matter of principle for him to step down to maintain institutional stability in the country. "The fate of such a huge country should not be hung on the fate of one man, even if this man is me," he said.

Alexander Rahr, a Russia expert at the Berlin-based German Council on Foreign Relations, said he saw Putin as very confident and happy with his achievements as president.

"He changed Russia," Rahr said after the meeting. "He is leaving but very reluctantly because he feels he can do much more for the country. I completely rule out that he is leaving politics altogether."

After the group posed for a photo with Putin outside the residence, Ariel Cohen, senior fellow of the Heritage Foundation, asked the president for an autograph on the dinner menu. When Putin agreed, the other participants followed suit.


(WBJ 11.ix.06)

 
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