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Putin…

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Большая статья о Путине. Не новая, но — любопытная.

With no warning, at the turn of the year, President Boris Yeltsin made the announcement to the world that from the next day forward he was vacating his office and leaving Russia in the hands of an unknown Vladimir Putin. On hearing the news, I thought surely not the Putin I remembered––he could never lead Russia. The next day a NYT article included a photo. Yes, it was the same Putin I’d met years ago! I was shocked and dismayed, telling friends, “This is a disaster for Russia, I’ve spent time with this guy, he is too introverted and too intelligent––he will never be able to relate to Russia’s masses.” Further, I lamented: “For Russia to get up off of its knees, two things must happen: 1) The arrogant young oligarchs have to be removed by force from the Kremlin, and 2) A way must be found to remove the regional bosses (governors) from their fiefdoms across Russia’s 89 regions”. It was clear to me that the man in the brown suit would never have the instincts or guts to tackle Russia’s overriding twin challenges.

February 2000: Almost immediately Putin began putting Russia’s oligarchs on edge. In February a question about the oligarchs came up; he clarified with a question and his answer: “What should be the relationship with the so-called oligarchs? The same as anyone else. The same as the owner of a small bakery or a shoe repair shop.” This was the first signal that the tycoons would no longer be able to flaunt government regulations or count on special access in the Kremlin. It also made the West’s capitalists nervous. After all, these oligarchs were wealthy untouchable businessmen––good capitalists, never mind that they got their enterprises illegally and were putting their profits in offshore banks.

Four months later Putin called a meeting with the oligarchs and gave them his deal: They could keep their illegally-gained wealth-producing Soviet enterprises and they would not be nationalized …. IF taxes were paid on their revenues and if they personally stayed out of politics. This was the first of Putin’s “elegant solutions” to the near impossible challenges facing the new Russia. But the deal also put Putin in crosshairs with US media and officials who then began to champion the oligarchs, particularly Mikhail Khodorkovsky. The latter became highly political, didn’t pay taxes, and prior to being apprehended and jailed was in the process of selling a major portion of Russia’s largest private oil company, Yukos Oil, to Exxon Mobil. Unfortunately, to U.S. media and governing structures, Khodorkovsky became a martyr (and remains so up to today).

March 2000: I arrived in St.Petersburg. A Russian friend (a psychologist) since 1983 came for our usual visit. My first question was, “Lena what do you think about your new president?” She laughed and retorted, “Volodya! I went to school with him!” She began to describe Putin as a quiet youngster, poor, fond of martial arts, who stood up for kids being bullied on the playgrounds. She remembered him as a patriotic youth who applied for the KGB prematurely after graduating secondary school (they sent him away and told him to get an education). He went to law school, later reapplied and was accepted. I must have grimaced at this, because Lena said, “Sharon in those days we all admired the KGB and believed that those who worked there were patriots and were keeping the country safe. We thought it was natural for Volodya to choose this career. My next question was, “What do you think he will do with Yeltsin’s criminals in the Kremlin?” Putting on her psychologist hat, she pondered and replied, “If left to his normal behaviors, he will watch them for a while to be sure what is going on, then he will throw up some flares to let them know that he is watching. If they don’t respond, he will address them personally, then if the behaviors don’t change–– some will be in prison in a couple of years.” I congratulated her via email when her predictions began to show up in real time.

Throughout the 2000’s: St.Petersburg’s many CCI alumni were being interviewed to determine how the PEP business training program was working and how we could make the U.S. experience more valuable for their new small businesses. Most believed that the program had been enormously important, even life changing. Last, each was asked, “So what do you think of your new president?” None responded negatively, even though at that time entrepreneurs hated Russia’s bureaucrats. Most answered similarly, “Putin registered my business a few years ago”. Next question, “So, how much did it cost you?” To a person they replied, “Putin didn’t charge anything”. One said, “We went to Putin’s desk because the others providing registrations at the Marienskii were getting ‘rich on their seats.'”

Late 2000: Into Putin’s first year as Russia’s president, US officials seemed to me to be suspect that he would be antithetical to America’s interests––his every move was called into question in American media. I couldn’t understand why and was chronicling these happenings in my computer and newsletters.

Year 2001: Jack Gosnell (former USCG mentioned earlier) explained his relationship with Putin when the latter was deputy mayor of St.Petersburg. The two of them worked closely to create joint ventures and other ways to promote relations between the two countries. Jack related that Putin was always straight up, courteous and helpful. When Putin’s wife, Ludmila, was in a severe auto accident, Jack took the liberty (before informing Putin) to arrange hospitalization and airline travel for her to get medical care in Finland. When Jack told Putin, he reported that the latter was overcome by the generous offer, but ended saying that he couldn’t accept this favor, that Ludmila would have to recover in a Russian hospital. She did––although medical care in Russia was abominably bad in the 1990s.

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