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Aired October 7, 2002 - 17:00:00   ET


JONATHAN MANN, CNN ANCHOR: 50 candles in Chisinau Kishinev. Russia's Vladimir Putin marks his birthday quietly on a trip to Moldova.
Back in his troubled country, an effusive outpouring of Putin-mania.

Hello and welcome.

Russia's richly jeweled Cap of Manama was an early czarist symbol of absolutely power. There is another cap like it now. It's a replica, insured with a value of $10 million, that's been fashioned as a birthday present for President Vladimir Putin.

Mr. Putin isn't a czar, of course, but he is the popular president of a country that hasn't found a leader to love in a long time.

For Russia's neighbors, Mr. Putin is something else as well. His gift Monday, from the president of Moldova, for example, was a crystal crocodile.

Vladimir Putin inherited Boris Yeltsin's position and has transformed it. He inherited Yeltsin's country, and has had much less dramatic results.

On our program today, Russia's Putin and Putin's Russia.

First, though, a look at the hour's headlines.

The Palestinian Red Crescent and hospital sources say at least 14 Palestinians are dead and more than 100 are wounded after an Israeli raid in Gaza. Israeli forces say they were firing at a group of gunmen who shot at them first.

In the meantime, hospital sources say two Hamas activists were killed in a series of gun battles. That gunfire erupted after Palestinian Authority commander was shot by masked men in Gaza City. The Palestinian Authority blames the military wing of Hamas for the shooting.

The Reuters news agency is reporting that government troops in Ivory Coast say they have recaptured the rebel stronghold of Bouake. Government troops reached the town center using heavy mortar and machine gun fire. Renewed fighting came after President Laurent Gbagbo refused to sign a truce brokered by West African envoys because he wants the rebels to disarm first.

British Prime Min. Tony Blair is appealing to politicians in Northern Ireland not to act in haste. The power-sharing provincial government is threatened with collapse following last week's police raid on the offices of Sinn Fein.

That raid reportedly revealed information that the IRA has penetrated the inner sanctums of power in the province. Unionists politicians have compared the raid to Watergate and are clamoring for the withdrawal of Sinn Fein from the government.

The stories coming out of Russia today are just plain silly. A woman who gets her moment of fame for teaching her dog to bark in a way that sounds like a familiar nickname for Vladimir, Vova. A man who has changed his own last name to Putin. The media are full of stories like that.

CNN's Moscow bureau chief Jill Dougherty gives us a sample and something of an explanation.


JILL DOUGHERTY, CNN MOSCOW BUREAU CHIEF (voice-over): "My boyfriend got into trouble again," they sing. "He made me so mad I dumped him. Now, I want someone like Putin."

Russia's all-girl band "Singing Together" belts out the refrain of their new song, "Someone like Putin, who won't hurt me. Someone like Putin, who wont' desert me."

How does a just turned 50-year-old former KGB agent become a heartthrob?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE SINGER: He's young. He's very clever. He's very diplomatic, can I say this, diplomatic. He's just very -- he's beautiful man, you see.

DOUGHERTY: Three years ago, before he was elected president, people were asking who in the world is Putin.

Now he's one of the most recognizable faces in the world, captured in calendars, immortalized in metal, tacked on to tee-shirts.

President Putin also is Russia's most popular politician, with a steady approval rating of nearly 70 percent. In a new poll, Russians say they like what they've described as his honesty, decency, work ethic, intelligence and purposefulness.

For a 50-year-old Russian male, Vladimir Putin is a statistical anomaly; a non-smoking athlete in a country where 63 percent of men smoke; a man who prefers milk to vodka; a guy who can keep more than his political opponents off balance.

50 years old, Vladimir Putin seems to be taking it stride.

Jill Dougherty, CNN, Moscow.


MANN: United States President George Bush called President Putin Monday also to wish him a happy birthday, but that wasn't the only subject. Mr. Bush asked for Russian help on Iraq.

Washington is hoping for a new United Nations resolution on weapons inspections there. Russia is opposed. But it could be more strongly publicly and passionately opposed.

Ryan Chilcote has a look back at Putin's time in the presidency, and he says the Kremlin's position on Iraq is a sign of how things have changed.


RYAN CHILCOTE, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): The Kremlin is not saying it will stand in the way of a United States military campaign, nor is it saying it will use its veto power as a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council to derail a new resolution on the inspectors.

Russia is still the occasional nay-sayer, but it is no longer the spoiler of United States foreign policy, and the reason why it isn't can be found in its president, Vladimir Putin.

Putin has decided that for Russia, it's the economy that's most important. Three years ago, President Boris Yeltsin made the little-known Vladimir Putin into his prime minister. Russia knew that he had been a spy, but little more.

The mercurial President Yeltsin spent much of his time in the hospital, fired his government five times, and did little as Russia's immense assets moved into the hands of a small group of oligarchs.

By the end of his presidency, the Russian currency had collapsed and the government owed impoverished state workers in some cases years of back pay.

At one stage, Yeltsin had an approval rating of only 2 percent. Mr. Putin's approval ratings are over 70. Russians think of Putin as being kind of boring in comparison to the colorful President Yeltsin, but after so many years of excitement, boring and predictable, they say, is good.

Since Putin took office, the economy has stabilized, even expanded, helped by strong oil prices. The oligarchs either walk in step with the president, or are on the run.

The average Russian still makes around $100 a month, but the number of Russians living under the poverty line has dropped.

Putin's style of government is hands on and it hasn't suited everyone. Critics say he has stifled the independent media. And Chechnya has remained a thorn in his side. The president who came to power on the wave of war can't seem to finish up business. Russian troops are in control of Chechnya, but face constant guerilla attacks, and the war has expanded into neighboring republics and outside of Russia's borders.

On September 11, President Putin was one of the first leaders to call President Bush to express his support. Russia allowed the United States to build military bases in post-Soviet Central Asia, thousands of miles inside its sphere of influence. And Russia has stopped making threats against the West for NATO's eastward expansion.

Putin told the West, Russia is no longer the threat. The threat is international terrorism, and Chechnya, according to him, has given Russia plenty of first-hand experience.

Ryan Chilcote, CNN, Moscow.


MANN: We take a break. When we come back, more about how he's running Russia.

Stay with us.


MANN: Welcome back.

Every year, the United Nations Development Program ranks living standards around the world. This year, Russia is 60th, just edge out of the top 1/3 of the 173 countries studied.

It dropped, in fact, from 55th just one year earlier.

The United Nations says that it's not that Russia is getting worse, it's that other countries are getting better faster.

A short time ago, we had a time to talk to Lilia Shevtsova of the Moscow Carnegie Center. Whatever else you discover about Russia, she says people there really do think the president there is doing a great job and his birthday is cause for celebration.


LILIA SHEVTSOVA, MOSCO CARNEGIE CENTER: Well, Jonathan, unfortunately, this birthday frenzy is quite real.

A lot of people, not only within the political and intellectual establishment, but a lot of people within the society are trying to display this kind of, you know, civility, loyalty, gratitude towards Putin, and the support is not only within the country.

I've heard the president of Kyrgyzstan quite recently suggested that he will name one of the Tajik peaks after Putin. So Putin can get any thing, any animal and even a mountain.

And it's just something of course about the moods within the country. It says that people -- it says a lot about the people who still want to see heroes, and it says something about Putin himself, because as far as I know he never did anything to stop this birthday frenzy.

MANN: Let me ask you more about what he has done. When you look at the years that he has been president of Russia, what have his successes been? What has he really done for the country?

SHEVTSOVA: Well, first of all, he has formed absolutely different pattern of leadership.

You know, it was very difficult to anticipate from this shallow, virtually unknown (UNINTELLIGIBLE), Mr. Nobody, to become Mr. Everybody, to become one of the powerful Russian leaders and a member of the international club.

Well, at least he has achieved much more during his two years than Yeltsin during his two tenures.

Well, firstly, he has stabilized the country. That's evident. Secondly, he has restarted (UNINTELLIGIBLE) under Yeltsin economic reform. Thirdly, he has made a revolution in the foreign policy field. In fact, he made a sharp and crucial for Russia pro-Western shift last year.

But at the same time, we all are asking ourselves a question. To what extent this kind of success, to what extent this Russian stability, could expand Russia's pro-Western shift, can be durable and sustainable when we still have a Russian czarist autocracy, in fact elected monarchy. To what extent this kind of political system and this state can be effective and can be considered as modern.

MANN: Let me ask you about that, because despite the successes you've mentioned, there are people who were hoping from Putin that he would lead Russia to a more open, democratic system, a society of law. He hasn't quite done that, has he?

SHEVTSOVA: Well, yes. Despite the fact that he is definitely a pro- market person, he is definitely pro-Western person, if you are talking about international alliances.

Put displays absolutely amazing distrust of all democratic political institutions. It seems to be he either is suspicious or he fears, at least he thinks that political pluralism, opposition, free media, are rather destructive for his tasks and for the state.

That's why it's very interesting to look at his amazing, unbelievable support rating, approval rating. 70 percent, after two years being in power. But if you dig a little bit deeper, you'll discover that only 24 percent of (UNINTELLIGIBLE) really think that he has succeeded with something.

And first of all, he has succeeded with foreign policy agenda. That means that a lot of Putin's successes, unfortunately, are based on the fact that he has no alternative. He has no enemy. He is the only one on the political scene. He is the only one, a lonely ranger, on the political desert.

MANN: What about people who are below the president's radar? People in Russia don't live as well as they deserve to. The country could be, should be, a lot more prosperous. People should have easier lives there. Are they getting easier because of the things he's done?

SHEVTSOVA: Well, it depends what social group we are talking about.

A lot of people are really happy, and they will vote for Putin once again in two year's time, because these people are finally getting their salaries paid. There are no huge wage freeze, and people appreciate that Putin at least has achieved a little bit more order and got the country out of Yeltsin's cave.

But, you know, other, much more there's another group of people, people that we call Russian middle class. Of course they're anxious. Of course they're concerned. They're concerned about the president and the Kremlin's desolation and zigzagging on every issue, on the issue of Iraq, on the issue of Georgia, you know, on the issue of Russia's future. And a lot of people are asking the question, what is our president's agenda? What is his vision? Whether he has one. Whether he's going to do one more very radical step and finally try to reform Russian political system, Russia's one-man personified power.

MANN: Let me ask you about another issue in Russian life, and that is organized crime, even petty crime. It seems at times like criminals have enormous influence in the country, whether on the street or in industry or in government.

SHEVTSOVA: Well, of course there is a lot of criminality. There are gangs in Russia. But I wonder whether our criminal trend is much more stronger than for instances criminal trends in some other developing countries with emerging markets.

There is another problem. We have not only criminals, but we have a huge gray zone where a huge part of Russia and part of the political system are living and surviving. You know, that's not exactly criminal zone. Simply, this is the zone that is based on shadow networking, you know. Give and take, bribes, you know, cozy relations, sweet deals, and shadow networking.

This is probably the most important and dangerous issue for Russia, not simply criminality but shadow zone when no rule of law is domineering.

MANN: Let me ask you one quick last question, and it brings us full circle in a way. Russia is not a monarchy of course, but one gets the sense it might almost be. If Vladimir Putin disappeared from the face of the earth today, is there another figure who would be ready to takeover Russia and do as well?

SHEVTSOVA: Of course there is someone, Mr. Nobody, who might takeover in case Putin disappears, but the problem is that we don't know his name. We don't know his agenda. We don't know who the man is. This is really Mr. Nobody still.

MANN: Lilia Shevtsova, senior associate at the Moscow Carnegie Center, thank you so much for talking with us.


We have to take another break. When we come back, the war the president can't find a way to win.

Stay with us.



VLADIMIR PUTIN, RUSSIAN PRESIDENT (through translator): The Russian policies were never directed against Georgia. The aim was to organize joint work to confront a common threat. Terrorism, banditry and drug trafficking constitute such a common threat.

EDWARD SCHEVARDNADZE, GEORGIAN PRESIDENT (through translator): We will assign special representatives who will monitor the situation on a permanent basis. They will deal with all outstanding problems, including the fight against terrorism and terrorists.


MANN: Welcome back.

Mr. Putin and Georgia's President Edward Shevardnadze at a meeting in Moldova.

The two leaders now say they'll work together to stamp out Chechen rebel activity in Georgia's Pankisi Gorge.

Russian officials say the rebels are operating in the area with impunity. They say their case was bolstered last week when a British journalist shot footage of rebels on the move in the gorge. That journalist paid the ultimate price in that particular story.

Once again, here's CNN's Jill Dougherty.


DOUGHERTY (voice-over): Danger is what freelance journalist Roddy Scott knew well, and the veteran found it during a three-month journey with Chechen fighters.

This, said the Russian Federal Security Service, the former KGB, is the videotape Roddy Scott recorded, a rare behind-the-front-lines view of the forces Russian troops are trying to subdue, a combination of Chechen freedom fighters, foreign mercenaries and, according to Russian officials, international terrorists aligned with al Qaeda.

The video record begins in July in a mountainous region Russian security agents describe as Georgia's loyalist Pankisi gorge. The clearly well-equipped fighters make their way through treacherous terrain, climbing so high it's difficult to breathe.

In one of the last scenes, the men, hungry and gaunt, cook a meal over a fire.

The videotape was recovered from Russian territory after Russian soldiers intercepted a group of approximately 200 rebels trying to infiltrate back into Chechnya from neighboring Georgia. Half of them were killed, Russian officials say, along with the 31-year-old Scott.

Russian security agents claim the soldiers could not recognize him as a journalist. They say he was wearing a camouflaged rain cape and had a beard. In one of his bags, a cartridge from a Kalashnikov assault rifle, although Russian officials do not claim he was armed.

The videotape appears to bolster charges by Russian President Vladimir Putin that terrorists found safe haven in the Pankisi Gorge. Russia threatened to take military action if Georgia did not crackdown on the rebels.

Georgian President Edward Shevardnadze now says his own troops have pushed them out.

On his tape, a fragment of an earlier telephone conversation as Roddy Scott tests his camera and prepares for his last trip.

Scott's colleagues say he was passionate about being a journalist.

VAUGHN SMITH, "FRONTLINE": He was interested in cover stories that he thought the mainstream media were in dereliction of their duty not covering. And I think, and to an extent, that is the case with Chechnya. It is very difficult for the mainstream media to cover Chechnya. It's very dangerous.

DOUGHERTY: But Roddy Scott, he says, was prepared to take that risk.

Jill Dougherty, CNN, Moscow.


MANN: Vladimir Putin vowed to restore order to Chechnya, but the war grinds on with daily casualties and reports of human rights violations on both sides.

Why can't the Russian army get the upper hand there?

Earlier, we spoke with political analyst Andre Kortunov in Moscow.


ANDRE KORTUNOV, POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, I think that now people in Russia don't have that great expectations about an early end to the war. They realize that it's a long problem, and I don't think that right now they expect Mr. Putin to resolve it next week, next month, or even next year.

MANN: Do they see it as a disaster, though, or as just one more fact of life in a difficult country?

KORTUNOV: Well, I think that what happened during the last two years was that this war became trivial. People get killed. From time to time, they show terrorist acts in Chechnya, perhaps some coverage of fights there.

But basically, the public at large doesn't pay too much attention to that. People are getting used to it, and they take it for granted.

MANN: Does the public at large, as you put it, know what's going on? Just a moment ago, we were hearing about a journalist who was killed trying to cover the war in Chechnya. It's not an easy place for journalists to work, both because it's dangerous and because journalists can't move freely. In Moscow, in any other part of Russia, is it easy, really, to keep track of exactly what is going on?

KORTUNOV: Well, I think that it is not that easy, because the rumors are that the news from Chechnya is censored by the military, and a lot of information is not available to the general public.

However, one should also say that unlike the first war in Chechnya under Mr. Yeltsin, in this case people are not that dramatically interested in what's going on.

I think that the perception is that this is something which does not affect them directly, and this is something they can ignore, or at least they can afford not to pay too much attention to.

MANN: One of the things that is said about the war in Chechnya is that like many other aspects of life in Russia, it is corrupt, that people are profiting in a way that is illegal, and probably and immoral, from this conflict. Is it true? And do Russians know much about that?

KORTUNOV: Well, again, you know, we can base our conclusions primarily on assumptions and rumors.

The rumors are that it's a very profitable business for many people around, that a lot of arms are being sold to Chechen fighters, that there is even some kind of hidden understanding between the field commanders, on the one hand, and some people on the Russian side on the other.

These things can hardly be proved. However, the public believes that there should be something there, because the war lasts for too long and nobody understands why a political solution to the problem cannot be found.

MANN: Why hasn't it been found, do you think?

KORTUNOV: Well, you know, I think that, first, one of the reasons why a solution was not found is that it is very difficult to negotiate with too many partners, and now we cannot speak about Chechen authorities about a legal center which could represent the Chechen nation.

There are many field commanders, some of them are fighting each other. They are very difficult to put under the same umbrella. And this is one of the reasons why it is difficult to terminate the conflict.

Another problem is that the extremism is clearly supported from outside the Russian federation, and Chechnya right now is not only a domestic problem for Russia, it is an international problem as well, and it is very difficult to isolate or to insulate the Chechen situation from what's going on in the caucuses or in the whole world. So that's another consideration we should be taking into account.

Finally, I think that some people in Russia, maybe some uniformed guys, are interested in preserving some level of tensions, and the military hostility in the region, because it helps them to keep their powder dry, to get more funding, and to get some promotions.

MANN: Let me ask you one last question. Vladimir Putin inherited the war in Chechnya from Boris Yeltsin. Has he changed it? Has he put his mark on it? Or is this campaign being fought really irrespective of the man who is occupying the Kremlin?

KORTUNOV: Well, I think that he did make a change. Under Putin, the military operations of the Russian army became more efficient, and now he can claim that he controls 80, 85 percent of the territory of the Chechen Republic.

Of course, Yeltsin in this sense was a clear failure, and Putin came out, quote/unquote, "victorious."

It's not the end of the problem, but he can say that at least the situation is more or less under control, the situation is more or less isolated from the rest of the country. Neighboring republics are not endangered, they're not going to be attacked by Chechens, and therefore he can claim a difference.

MANN: Andre Kortunov, political analyst and adviser to the state Duma, thank you so much for talking with us.

KORTUNOV: Thank you.


MANN: And that is INSIGHT for this day. I'm Jonathan Mann.



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