From Fareed: Russia's crossroads
Dmitry Medvedev and Vladimir Putin.
June 30th, 2011
06:00 AM ET

From Fareed: Russia's crossroads

I was one of the early critics of Russian President Vladimir Putin. I thought that under the guise of democracy and elections he was creating a kind of super-presidency that would ride roughshod over the rule of law.  Many of those concerns were borne out.

But on my recent visit to Russia, I was struck by something else. Clearly the Russian state is predatory and dictatorial. But underneath that you also see a society that is modernizing.

When you go to Russia you see more and more people who are educated, westernized and are trying to build companies.

It’s still a smaller phenomenon than the state that has consolidated power and created this oligarchy of billionaires - all of whom play by the Kremlin’s rules. But I have to say, the more you meet and talk to these young people, the more hope you have that there will be greater openness in Russia.

The bigger issue is that the demand for commodities and oil has kept the Kremlin totally insulated.

During the financial crisis when the price of oil collapsed, you started to hear Vladimir Putin become much more conciliatory. He began to talk more about the rule of law.

Now with the price of oil back at $85 a barrel, the Russian leadership feels like it no longer needs to talk about reform.

Alas, there is going to be a demand for oil and commodities as long as the emerging markets boom. So I don’t see something putting pressure on Russia from the outside.

The question is whether this nascent middle class can start to put pressure on Russia from the inside.

They still seem weak, but I am struck that every time I go to Russia, they are a little stronger than they were last time - not politically, but in their desire for a normal, everyday life. In that sense, they seem to aspire to live in a normal western-style society.

On Putin and Medvedev

Putin is the more powerful one. Clearly Putin is the real power behind the throne. But Medvedev is not entirely irrelevant.

If you look at our GPS interview with Medvedev, what you sense is a guy who recognizes the limitations on him, but also who realizes that being the president of Russia is not nothing.

Medvedev emphasized repeatedly that all sorts of appointments have to be made by him as president - that treaties have to be signed by him as president.

What he seemed to be saying is that just holding the position gives him some power.  He has tried to create some  distinction between himself and Putin and some movement toward legal reform.

It’s not enough to characterize it in any way really as political liberalization yet.

But you do get the sense that if he had his way there would be more of it.

So, Russia could go one of two ways. There were many moments that seemed like reformist moments during the Soviet Union that always failed - Khrushchev being the most powerful example  But you also have had cases where regimes begin very slowly and then start to modernize.

Right now you have to say that Russia looks like a very difficult place to describe as politically liberalizing, but when I go back in a year or two I'll keep all these questions in mind, and will see where we are then.

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soundoff (122 Responses)
  1. edward sevume

    Irrespective of what one wishes, a nation has a right to chart its own way, making mistakes but learning from them. Russia today is different from the Russia I know when I did my masters degree there! It has evolved and continues to do so!
    With this evolution comes many freedoms and remember, Russians are quick learners. They have a long cultural and scientific heritage. Russia has contributed to culture and science and continues to do so! Scientists that migrated many centuries ago still carry their Russian names for us to marvel on how Russia has creative minds. I know for one that this country is going to be the engine of development and shall take off not from where Lenin and Stalin left, but from where Dostoyevsky and Tolostoi left off! Russia has a European mind sett even when sharing longer boundaries with Asian nations. This platform is important when turning around a country into a perpetual bread Basket. Yes, when Fareed gets there next time, he will get more surprises with the speed of change in Russia! I only have to say go Russia Go!

    July 1, 2011 at 7:34 am | Reply
  2. Ilya

    Mr. Zakaria, you know NOTHING about Russia. First off, the Russians ("Soviets") have always been one of the best-educated nations in the world, but you are making it sound like it is something brought by "latest modernization". In contrary, the state of education dramatically deteriorated in the last decade. Secondly, you've only been to Moscow, right? Don't judge Russia by its capital – most of the country is still a very poor and corrupt country.
    Lastly, the Putin's/Medvedev's regime promotes Russian Orthodox Church in its most barbaric and hideous form. Schoolbooks are being rewritten to replace scientific facts with religious gibberish.
    The bottom line is you should be doing much more research before putting something in writing you have no clue about.

    July 1, 2011 at 8:07 am | Reply
    • peacenforcer

      "Lastly, the Putin's/Medvedev's regime promotes Russian Orthodox Church in its most barbaric and hideous form. Schoolbooks are being rewritten to replace scientific facts with religious gibberish".
      *****************************************************************************
      U made a lot of good points, but when it comes to religion u are talking complete and utter , if not criminal, nonsense(

      1) Putin/Medvedev DO NOT promote Russian Orthodox Church, because the state in modern Russia does not interfere in church affairs, which is actually common knowledge: Russian Orthodox Church runs its own affairs without any interference, orders, instructions, or even pressure from the outside. In fact modern Church is fully independent and self-governed.

      2) There's NO NEED to promote Russian Orthodox Church, because Russia HISTORICALLY (for over a 1000 years already) is the domain of Orthodoxy, so it is only natural that people, having thrown off the shackles of the atheistic communist yoke, have come to AGAIN embrace what they are genetically predisposed to: the Russian Orthodox faith.
      No person in Russia is under pressure from any organization or individual to join the Orthodox Religion – it's a matter of free will, and the encouraging and equally undeniable fact that the number of believers and church-goers has been rising exponentially over the past 20 years has NOTHING to do whatsoever with any policy, promotion, campaign, coercion or brainwashing: people are just COMING BACK TO THEIR ROOTS – plain and simple.

      3) And finally, being an atheist or agnostic, u are in no position to judge what is the truth and what is “gibberish”, ‘cause at best u are extremely biased and subjective, at worst openly hostile and aggressive towards God and religion, which hardly makes u an expert in such matters or adds weight to your claims. You chose your path but don’t you judge those who chose or were chosen to take a different one.

      July 1, 2011 at 9:06 pm | Reply
      • Ilya

        In Russia, church is NOT separated from the state – the are no longer even pretending. Church is openly serving to Kremlin junta, and Kremlin junta makes sure the church is blossoming on people's ignorance and fears. That's to your #1.
        To your #2, there were several generations who were born and raised in religion-free atmosphere, so today's exhumation of Orthodox Christianity is not based on anything other than it being a powerful and effective mechanism to control people's will and minds.
        To your #3 – I don't care whether or not you believe in supernatural fictional characters, as long as it does not interfere with my life. In Russia, church does exactly that.

        July 2, 2011 at 8:17 pm |
  3. jamie

    "Oligarchy of billionaires", same thing could be said about the great USA.

    July 1, 2011 at 8:42 am | Reply
  4. Kostya from Russia

    In a recent 5 years I see some generation changes – younger people say under 35 are more responsible, aimed and they know their rights, they are ready to fight for them. 5 more years and you will see real political parties and changes.

    I would say that the problem #1 in Russia is corruption and untrust, corruption could be fought through the opposing parties, but untrust is more deep problem, that need generations to be solved with the help of christian church and freedom.

    July 1, 2011 at 10:01 am | Reply
  5. Burt

    Next time you go to Russia, Fareed Zakaria, they will probably not let you out and put you in prison, Just like the one time richest man in Russia that criticized Putin and was sentence to 16 years. Russia is not the USA, and if I were you I'd be very afraid. But, most likely they will not give you a Visa to get in after reading this, but if they do watch out for the KGB who will follow you and note every little thing you say and where you go, so they can set you up, and send you to Siberia.

    July 1, 2011 at 10:01 am | Reply
  6. Amit-Atlanta-USA

    Yet another POOR ATTEMPT by Mr. ZAKARIA to both downplay the GREAT RUSSIAN people, and VLADIMIR PUTIN- one of the MOST ADMIRED LEADERS in the world today. At a time when Russia was fast receding into ANARCHY it was Putin who brought the country together, and made sure that the huge oil revenues were used effectively to rebuild Russia.

    Much against the ISLAMIST DESIGNS OF MR. ZAKARIA, it was Putin who pumped in billions to rebuild ROGUE CHECHNYA (after giving them a chance to govern themselves & failed!), which is unfortunately once again is going the ISLAMIST inspired TERRORIST & CRIMINAL path, which Mr. ZAKARIA SHAMELESSLY calls a legitimate struggle.

    Mr. ZAKARIA shows off the EXTENT TO WHICH he will STOOP to support his ilk when he wrote an article in Time magazine dated Jan 27th, 2011 squarely blaming the Russians for creating a TERRORIST problem for themselves (!!!), EVEN AS the Russians were still picking up DEAD BODIES from the ghastly Moscow airport bombing by Chechan Islamic terrorists.

    Here's the link to that story titled "HOW RUSSIA CREATED ITS "OWN" ISLAMIC "TERRORISM" PROBLEM (& several of my comments too!)

    Coming to the Russian people, very few people have shown the courage & determination as the Russians when they faced some of the worst atrocities during the Nazi siege, the Stalin era. Their scientific achievements in space science (robotic expeditions to the Moon, Venus etc.), the totally remotely operated Space Shuttle Buran, aero-space (the fastest fighter planes of the time), Nuclear submarines, Ice breakers etc. continue to amaze American scientists today.

    By a string of stupid articles including the recent one on immigration and several others in pursuit of his ISLAMIST AGENDA my former countryman Mr. Zakaria is increasingly exposing himself as some one bent upon bringing disgrace to the great JUDO-CHRISTIAN CIVILZATION whether in America, Russia, or Europe at the cost of the ISLAMISTS!!!

    Amit-Atlanta-USA

    July 1, 2011 at 10:14 am | Reply
  7. cody

    The problem with the modernization is that in places like Moscow (where I have been living since February.) people will mortgage their entire lives away for modern convinces. An iPhone costs about $1200 but everyone has one, and as a result they have poor living conditions. Yesterday on the Metro I saw an ad that was to get 10,000 ruble line of credit by text message... at something between 15-25% interest. Russia's middle class will never attain real political power until they stop living through consumer products and start actively participating in the things that govern their everyday lives.

    July 1, 2011 at 10:22 am | Reply
  8. Zulu

    Actually, this "more and more educated people in Russia" passage is just plain orwellian. The objective of the Ministry of Truth is not to search and report the truth, but to create it – according to the requirements of the moment as seen by the Inner Party.

    The problem with this system is not that it is "unfair" or something like that, but that it's stupid. Before long, the Inner Party itself will lose any touch with reality, and will live in a fantasy universe created by the likes of Mr. Zakaria here... And that universe is just one step away from the Mad Max universe.

    July 1, 2011 at 10:28 am | Reply
  9. AlGhandy

    Some of the Russians above got pissed by author's comment on improved education. I believe that the education he is referring is NOT when you've learned multiplication table, capitals of all countries in the world, Schrödinger's equation, or how to spell "Schrödinger". In that type of education Soviet Union was way ahead of modern Russia or USA. But what is needed to be thought is responsibility and honesty. The Russian society has long been dominated by slogan: "If you are not caught – you are not thief". Cheating in schools was formally punishable, but acceptable and always admired by peers. The same philosophy gets transferred into adult's life. Russians just smile when they read tax declarations of their officials. What can you say if your president has outfit and watch worth almost half of his declared net worth? This results in atmosphere of global mistrust. Russians always suspect that someone is trying to trick them (and in Russia they have good reasons to suspect it). The victims of machinations are labeled "lokhs" (suckers) and get little sympathy. The same ideology is transferred to international policy. And if you do not trust anybody, no one will trust you either. That is something that needs to be thought. The problem is that one honest person in dishonest society will always be a "lokh".

    July 1, 2011 at 11:30 am | Reply
    • AlGhandy

      P.S. To prove that even Soviet education had gaps:
      teach – taught, taught

      not "thought" 🙂

      July 1, 2011 at 11:36 am | Reply
    • Zulu

      Then, sure, the Russian people has gotten even more educated in this way. This principle, you're talking about – "If you're not caught – you're not a thief" is now at its absolute. The corruption and criminal ties of the authorities and law enforcement are such that the Mafia could take lessons. And one of the latest lessons for the Russians was about the very school cheating: Some time after this year's high school finals, it was revealed that in a Moscow school a group of college students had performed the tests instead of the real school seniors. Those students were expelled from their college, but no legal or disciplinary action was taken against the seniors, their parents, teachers or local school administration. So yeah, the evil college students are the perpetrators here, no doubt, and everybody else is a victim, amirite?

      Russia is on its way to becoming one giant Mexico, and that's what the US wants it to be, and the Russian shadow cabinet is making it happen, while staging this Medvedev vs. Putin show.

      July 1, 2011 at 12:18 pm | Reply
  10. Alexander

    Let's read the second paragraph:

    "But on my recent visit to Russia, I was struck by something else. Clearly the Russian state is predatory and dictatorial."

    What is that an american tourist, Fareed Zakaria, visited Moscow recently (or may be St. Peterburgh, or may be something else) and discover that the state is predatory and dictatorial. BRAVO, FAREED. Predatory and dictatorial
    are everywhere. On the street in Moscow. In the air. Advertised in billboards. You just found what
    you expected to find. Yes, Putin is a color blooded killer. It is a crystal clear as the fact that all you see in Putin's
    eyes is the three letters - K G B. Yes, you always new it. Does it remind you anything? Yes is does. It sounds
    like some senator from Arizona alleging that all wild fires are set by illegal immigrants. Yes, it is as obvious as O.J.
    is guilty.

    OH, THE STUPID AMERICANS, JUST GET A F..... OUT OF RUSSIA, NEVER COME BACK, AND TAKE YOUR
    PEPSI COLA WITH YOU. YOU CAN BELIEVE IN WHATEVER YOU BELIEVE. YOU CAN ELECT WHATEVER
    POLITICIANS YOU LIKE IN FREE AND DEMOCRATIC ELECTION. AN YOU ALWAYS HAVE CHOICE WHO WILL
    SCREW YOU UP LATER - A REPUBLICAN LAWYER OR A DEMOCRATIC LAWYER. ENJOY YOUR DEMOCRACY.
    BUT ENJOY IT FOR YOURSELF.

    July 1, 2011 at 1:04 pm | Reply
    • AlGhandy

      Fareed Zakaria does not try to teach You (which is, in Your case is hopeless anyway). He merely expressed his opinion about Russia to Americans on AMERICAN site. So, please, get out of this American site and, BTW, from internet altogether (after all it is an American invention). Do not forget to send back to US your computer also.
      ENJOY YOUR VODKA.

      July 1, 2011 at 1:36 pm | Reply
      • Alexander

        Computer would be a little bit more complicated story to give up. And so does radio, television, aircraft, helicopter,
        rocket engine; and even 3-phase electricity generator and distribution grid, and many other things - all these
        stories are a bit more complex to fit into formula that "barbarians just steal everything from the west".

        What Russians did NOT invent are the three things:
        (1) Democracy - obviously, and, as paradoxically as it might sound...
        (2) Vodka. Yes, yes, vodka: the idea that it can be purified by passing vapor through charcoal
        and sodium carbonate was discovered by Jews in Golitzia (what in now western Ukraine).
        And the reason why it were Jews has a very simple explanation: by law in Russian Empire
        Jews were now allowed to own hand, hence produce any agriculture in a country and during
        the time when agriculture was pretty much all what was being produced. So the had to invent
        something new.
        (3) Communism is not a Russian invention either, it is kind of European idea, I believe it was a joint
        venture between Germany (ideas) and England(provided monetary sponsorship - in modern terms
        "grants") with some influence of France (inspiration).

        July 1, 2011 at 3:16 pm |
      • AlGhandy

        OK, you just proving my point: it is hopeless to teach You. Partially because You consider yourself well educated. So for you any American who does not know what Jews were doing in Golitzia are ignorant and have no right to teach you.
        But NOBODY was trying to teach you. I repeat: Fareed Zakaria (who is one of the smartest and one of few actually sympathetic to Russia journalists) was trying to educate Americans about situation in Russia. And, unfortunately, his assessment is gloomy, but realistic. You cannot cover with flashy billboards, classy dresses and flashy cars lack of basic attributes of normal society: transparency of government, separation of state and religion, independent judicial system, etc.. History has numerous examples that countries w/o those attributes sooner or later become headaches not only for their own citizens but for the entire world.
        So West HAS to be educated about Russia for many reasons. And it is better done by reading Zakaria articles, then by reading your first comment. Because if I knew nothing about Russia, then after reading it I would get an impression that Russia is populated by a...holes.

        July 1, 2011 at 4:04 pm |
      • Wasabiwahabi

        You really must study the verb, "to be." "OK, you just proving my point" Where is the verb in this phrase, which is neither sentence nor fragment. What is more, please be cognizant about the rules for using upper and lower case lettering. At the beginning of a sentence and when indicating proper nouns are two significant considerations. The definite article is frequently absent in your posts. Consider the following example: "So West HAS to be..." One might assume you mean "the" West in this fragment, which embodies all the grammatical errors outlined above. If one wants to be taken seriously, one must communicate effectively.

        July 1, 2011 at 5:37 pm |
      • Zulu

        - "History has numerous examples that countries w/o those attributes sooner or later become headaches not only for their own citizens but for the entire world."

        You mean like the United States?

        July 1, 2011 at 6:47 pm |
    • billabong021

      I kinda wish Russians would stay in Russia n not go outside it, it's so awkward to see them walking around on the beach looking like serial killers with their socks and sandals.

      Honestly, I wish they would just stick to moving about in Russia.

      July 4, 2011 at 8:53 am | Reply
  11. Wasabiwahabi

    Dmitry Medvedev and Vladimir Putin make a great couple in the photo at the header of the article. Wow, Russia is even more progressive than I thought.

    July 1, 2011 at 9:28 pm | Reply
  12. hello

    Fareed Zakaria writes the same article about every country. He has the easiest job in the world

    July 1, 2011 at 10:36 pm | Reply
  13. Rachel

    This article also leaves a 'bad taste' in my mouth but for another reason. Saying that Westernized society = a good, and "normal" society is an extremely ethnocentric and biased stance to take. Who is anyone to say that being 'westernized' automatically gives you a better standard of living?

    July 2, 2011 at 5:43 am | Reply
    • Wasabiwahabi

      "Who is anyone to say.." We are, the ones with freedom of speech, religion, assembly, theaters that show movies criticizing the government, the right for women to drive cars and to wear anything they please, the right to have a glass of beer, wine, or bourbon, the right to wear a bathing suit to a beach, the writ of habeus corpus, supermarkets with more than just salted meat on the shelves, the right for men and women to vote, the right to teach anything one wants in a university without disappearing in the middle of the night, the right to a six pack on the weekend and the right to wave any flag we damned well please – that's who.

      July 2, 2011 at 4:30 pm | Reply
  14. RemusRoma

    @Rachel – westernized means a better democracy and check out the better standard of living index from the Economic Intelligence Uni. If you and all the educated (without pants) people commented above with dirty words for the sake of 1st amendment were Russian or even commented the same way about Putin or Medvedev then there was god chance that you could been killed or molested in the warehouse of FSB. Some of the folks commented here obviously without reading Fareed's article are smelly as ISI just because Fareed was born in India and he is an awesome critique of Pakistan. More interestingly, some red neck educated (again without pants) commented with dirty words just to Bash Fareed to express their insecurity of a Brown Man advocating on the very core issue that they believe are the only people reserves the right to think about. I am just shocked to see some people can actually go wild on CNN page and at the same time they love to call themselves civilized.

    July 2, 2011 at 9:42 am | Reply
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