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Eric Margolis comments on Putin and Russia’s Duma elections

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Putin and a new Pan-Slavism
Eric Margolis comments on Putin and Russia’s Duma elections

Wednesday December 5th, 2007

PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR: A lot of people are criticizing Putin’s manipulation of these elections, criticizing his human rights record. But he seems rather popular. The idea that Putin will find a way to stay in power does not seem to be an unpopular notion in Russia.

ERIC MARGOLIS, REAL NEWS ANALYST: This is a very disturbing problem for people who are democrats, like myself. I’m a radical democrat, militant democrat. But I look at Putin, and all the polls show, every Russian I’ve talked to tells us that Putin is adored in Russia. He is the new symbolic figure out of Russian history, the white tsar, the good tsar who comes out of nowhere, to rescue dear Mother Russia in her moment of trouble and humiliation. He’s done this. He’s brought Russia back up on its feet. He’s raised Russia’s income, thanks to high oil prices. He’s restored national pride in Russia.

JAY: All the same language one could have used about Hitler in the early 1930s.

MARGOLIS: Yes, except that Putin does not seem to have any racist or even quest for international world power. He wants to restore the Soviet Union. I have no doubt about that. And he wants in a very muscular manner—.

JAY: By Soviet Union you mean recapture the countries that left the Soviet Union.

MARGOLIS: Yes, its physical space without the communist system. He’s a right-wing nationalist and wants nothing to do with the old communist way. But he wants to make Russia strong and really to make Russia the dominant world power. And why shouldn’t it be? Because Russia has this immensity of natural resources and a very well-educated, intelligent population, and very courageous people when they set their minds to it.

JAY: U.S., corporately if not at the political level, helped provide armaments for Germany in the 1930s, financing, was not that strong in terms of trying to isolate the rising Nazi regime. In today’s parallel, to whatever extent that parallel holds, the U.S. set the plate for Putin, they set the plate for having such a strong nationalist leader. Is the West going to come to regret this?

MARGOLIS: I’m sure it will one day. But the problem is what we’ve done in the West, and the Bush administration in particular, has done acts like driving NATO right to Russia’s borders, this incredibly stupid missile defense plan in Poland and the Czech Republic, and throwing America’s weight around in Iraq and in the Middle East, which are right next door to Russia. This has inflamed the most primitive, backwards, nationalist, xenophobic anti-western feelings in Russia, and that’s what we’re getting now. We’ve got Putin who’s blasting the West for threatening Russia, and we brought all the scary Russian extremists out of the wood work.

JAY: The U.S., Bush administration seems to create their mirror reflection all over the world. Everywhere U.S. policy seems to go, they create to see their mirror opposite type, whether in Iraq to Russia.

MARGOLIS: There’s an old Taoist expression, which is you become what you hate. And, in a way, I’ve often written that today’s United States, it mirror-images the Soviet Union under Brezhnev: you have a leader who’s completely out of touch with reality and slow-witted, surrounded by scheming imperialists who want to take over the world. And we’re seeing that history is repeating itself, just in a different place.

JAY: What do you make of media coverage, western, especially North American media coverage of Putin and Russia? I think generally he’s seen very favourably here. There’s the odd story about the killing of a journalist, but the human rights record is not front page news here about Russia. You self-assess media coverage? And why do you think this is?

MARGOLIS: Well, first of all, everybody’s ignored Chechnya. Russia has committed unspeakable crimes. Really, one could call it almost genocide in Chechnya. And it continues. Squashed the life out of this tiny little one million people.

JAY: There’s a lot of analysts say there was a kind of a deal after 9/11, that Russia would be full supportive of U.S. policy in, first, Afghanistan and then Iraq, and U.S. would keep rather quiet about Chechnya.

MARGOLIS: Well, I believe that is the case and that we in fact helped crush the Chechen independence movement by supplying the Russians with sophisticated electronic gear that allowed, for example, the assassination of the Chechen president Dzhokhar Dudayev that was done through the National Security Agency. We financed Yeltsin’s war against the Chechens that killed over a hundred thousand civilians. You know, we’re still carrying on about 9/11. What about the hundred thousand people killed in Chechnya? That’s a great blot on America’s honour. And we’re culpable with Russia’s crime. So these are crimes, but they have been ignored. For the rest of it, the U.S. press has been pretty supportive of Putin.

JAY: Why?

MARGOLIS: Because he has not gone into direct conflict with U.S. policy yet, though he’s certainly headed in that direction, and because they can’t see any other alternative to Putin, and better the Putin that you know than some kind of disorganized Russia where all the different factions are fighting for power.

JAY: Have we seen the beginning of a real split between Putin and Bush? It wasn’t that long ago President Bush looked into Putin’s heart and—I can’t remember—he saw a friend, or, rather, someone he could do business with. Recently in Iran, Putin fired very powerful shots at Bush foreign policy, essentially calling it imperialist and aggressive, and warning the U.S. off of any aggressive action against Iran. The rhetoric from Putin against the Bush administration is very high. Is it a real split? Or is this for domestic Russian consumption?

MARGOLIS: Oh, I think it’s a real split. I think that as Russia feels its oats, its oil and fueled oats, and it’s stronger and stronger, it’s reasserting its traditional foreign policy interests and spheres of influence, very riled up about the Kosovo issue in the Balkans, this missile thing we just mentioned, and the Middle East. We’re inflaming the Russians on really sore points for themselves. You’re going to see a greater distancing between the U.S. and Russia.

JAY: And as that distance widens, do we see a closing of distance between Russia and China? Is their cooperation now where they see each other as counterbalanced to American power and need to work together more?

MARGOLIS: There is and there isn’t. They have been cooperating. Russia, for example, is China’s largest foreign arms supplier of high-tech arms, and China needs Russia for that. And they are in agreement on opposing U.S. influence in central Asia and the Middle East. But there’s such a profound distrust between the Chinese and the Russians. They really detest each other. It’s a racial, emotional, historical thing, that, where, should be much closer collaboration, there should be an entente, there isn’t; there’s just the working relationship.

JAY: Are there any, what you could say, really democratic forces that are trying to emerge? And should the media here be covering that story?

MARGOLIS: There are democratic forces, but they probably represent no more than 8% of the intelligentsia in the big cities in Russia. There’s always been throughout Russian history a very pro-westernize minority, an elite that wants to do everything western. Now, we just saw last week—.

JAY: But pro-democratic doesn’t necessarily mean pro-western.

MARGOLIS: That’s correct. But there are in the more enlightened political figures in Russia, but they have absolutely no popular support, and they’re of no importance. In fact, even just last week Putin said a remarkable thing. He was criticizing Peter the Great for opening up Russia too much to western influence. You know, welcome back to the days of Pan-Slavism. Fascinating.


Please note that TRNN transcripts are typed from a recording of the program; The Real News Network cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.

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Eric Margolis is an internationally syndicated columnist and renowned book author. He’s a veteran Korea-watcher who specializes in north Asian military/strategic affairs. He’s been all over the DMZ and produced his documentary there last year featuring a segment from Panmunjom on the DMZ. Two special areas of focus:  1. What would a war actually look like if one erupted?  2. The geopolitics of the region – the Koreas, Japan, China, Russia, the US.  Eric was a regular columnist for Japan's Mainichi Shimbun and is a long-time member of the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London.