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Russia: Czech Journalist Evaluates Putins Policy -- Interview Part 2

Petra Prochazkova arrived in Moscow in 1992 on a three-month assignment for the respected Czech newspaper "Lidove Noviny." Eight years later, she remains based in the Russian capital and has become a veteran among foreign correspondents covering Russia.

Prochazkova spoke with RFE/RL last week in a wide-ranging interview. In part one of our selection from the interview, we focused on her views of Chechnya. In this second part, she offers her observations on how Russia is likely to develop under newly elected President Vladimir Putin.

Prague, 25 May 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Prochazkova was asked to comment on the likely shape of Russia's future administration, given Putin's plans to reorganize the internal administrative boundaries. Will the future Russia be a highly centralized state or more of a confederation? She responded:

"It will be a state with a centralized administration, everything will be decided in Moscow, but perhaps regional leaders will be allowed to think they can also have a limited say. If they are obedient and loyal to Putin, they will have some influence in what happens in their regions. But I don't think there will be a de-centralization in the way the country is run."

Prochazkova noted that the enormous collection of peoples and territories that is the Russian Federation remains the world's last great empire. But she does not expect it to fall apart like the Soviet Union:

"Russia indeed is an anachronism in today's world because it is the last colonial superpower in the world. It has a difficult time falling apart -- perhaps due to one 'technical' reason. That is, [in the 20th century,] most colonies seceded from their respective empires overseas -- but Russia is a fixed land-mass and all its component parts are linked economically. That's the main problem. If it were only about a desire to be free or some liberation movements, I think Russia would have fallen apart long ago. But it's not so easy."

"And the collapse of the Soviet Union proved it. You have to realize that the republics which are currently part of the Russian Federation also wanted something similar and their local czars wanted to be president and to have their seat in the UN. But then they saw what happened elsewhere. They saw the enormous problems these newly independent states encountered. They saw what happened in Tajikistan, they saw what happened in Belarus, which today -- thanks to its 'wonderful' president -- wants to return to the Russian empire. I don't think we'll see the total de-colonization of Russia anytime soon."

Turning to foreign policy, Prochazkova was asked to comment on the ties between Moscow and Belgrade, and Russia's opposition to NATO's military campaign in Kosovo. She believes that, unfortunately, the West's actions in Kosovo have allowed Russia to justify its own policies in Chechnya:

"The Balkan conflict was of great use to the Russians. That's one of the reasons I really regret that it took place. Because when the war began in the Caucasus, their main argument -- aside from the fight against terrorism -- was: 'But you did the same thing and applauded yourselves, so we can also do what we want. And you invite the foreign minister of Chechnya -- or the pseudo-foreign minister -- of Chechnya to Prague and Paris. So why can't we have [Yugoslav President Slobodan) Milosevic's brother as ambassador [in Moscow]. We follow the same policies you do -- it's just that you claim to be right while you accuse us of violating human rights.'"

Respected for her experience in covering conflicts in the Caucasus, Prochazkova was asked what role this region plays in Russia's foreign policy:

"Russia's position in the Caucasus is very special. It's unfortunate that few people in the world are interested in this area. If the world at large knows anything about the Caucasus region, it usually is -- at most -- that there is oil in Azerbaijan. For Russia, the Caucasus is a crucial piece of territory. And of all the countries in the region, Armenia for the moment is absolutely the most important. Russia has installed its military bases there and is very glad to have Armenia."

Prochazkova elaborated on Armenia's importance to Russia:

"Armenia is important to Russia because it has military bases there and because it is the only country which does not protest against Russia's presence and even accepts it with a big smile. That's because of Azerbaijan and Turkey, of course. Russia also has bases in Georgia, but it's starting to have big problems with them. And it is possible that we will reach a very interesting geo-political situation, which is that Russian forces will have to leave Georgia some day.

"They will leave [the Georgian enclave of] Abkhazia because their peacekeeping mandate will end there. There are no Russian bases in Azerbaijan, so all of a sudden Armenia will become their only [Caucasus] base. It will not be linked to Russia geographically, but will harbor an even-greater concentration of military power than there is now -- under many pretexts.

"One of those pretexts will be [the enclave of Nagorno-] Karabakh. The Russian will say: 'We are here to ensure the conflict in Karabakh does not spread further.' The Armenians will also quietly hope that the Russians will protect them against Turkey. But in reality the Russians will be there because they will have been thrown out of all the surrounding states, and the Caucasus could find itself under the influence of NATO or Turkey -- in this case, the same thing. Right now, there is a quiet struggle going on to see who will have the greater influence. And in this light, I think the Karabakh conflict is extremely important and unfairly forgotten by the world."

President Putin's recent visit to Central Asia, which came on the heels of a visit by U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, underscored the international battle for influence now going on in this region. Prochazkova believes that here, too, Moscow is using the fight against terrorism as a pretext for assuring itself a continued role:

"The Russian have a great argument, which they have already used in Tajikistan. If you recall, it was: 'The Taliban is getting closer and everyone is threatened, so it would be best to deploy the Russian army along the entire frontier with Afghanistan to protect the rest of the world against this danger of fundamentalism.' The fight against terrorism is another argument. These are 'wonderful' arguments that allow the Russian military -- and after it, let's say, the Russian economy -- again to occupy the space once taken up by the Soviet Union."

I think Putin understands that this cannot be achieved by using force against these countries -- they have their own rulers. These are proud men -- with Asian characteristics -- so they must be persuaded by means other than threats. So he chose this way. Another way will be through economic leverage."

Prochazkova also said that in its relations with Ukraine, Russia is making especially effective use of its economic leverage. She pointed to Ukraine as another key country for Russia, due to its transit status for Russia's oil and gas pipelines:

"It is for Russia, simply, a very important transit country. On the other hand, Ukraine desperately needs Russia because it has no money and it needs to steal Russia's natural resources from those pipelines -- which it has been doing successfully for many years -- and this is where Ukraine's enormous indebtedness comes from. So Ukraine and Russia have a better starting position to be close to each other, especially economically, than a new player in this area. On the other hand, Ukraine very much more wants to be part of Europe than Russia does -- and I understand this. As a result, there is a basic conflict between Ukraine's political ambition and its economic reality."

Russia's own economic position is considered by many analysts to depend to a great extent on the continued high price of oil -- its biggest export. But if world oil prices drop and the alleged wholesale theft of Russia's other natural resources continues, how can the country prosper? Prochazkova was asked to comment on the likelihood that Putin will follow through on his promise to put an end to corruption in the economy:

"From Putin's speeches and his image and his psychology -- if a person observes him for a while -- it is clear this is a man who wants to be a great leader. And he cannot be the great leader of a half-collapsed, criminalized state. He has to create something. Yeltsin was laughable because the state was crumbling in his hands and he himself was falling apart. Wars began all around and everyone stole from him and Russia collapsed economically."

Prochazkova concludes that, if Putin has learned anything, then "he has to do something now. The first thing he must do," she says, "is limit the criminalization of the economy." Noting that he often talks about corruption, she is convinced Putin knows this very well. "The only thing that remains," she adds, "is for him to find a way to accomplish this [that is, the decriminalization of the country]."

(RFE/.RL's Jolyon Naegele and Milan Nic of the Slovak Service took part in the interview with Petra Prochazkova.)