Something I wanted to write about since Thursday night but kept getting distracted...
The transcript of the press conference following the meeting between Bush and Putin in Bratislava does not carry the names of the reporters who were asking the questions. One question, however, from Andrei Kolesnikov of the Kommersant Daily, turned out to be quite a highlight of the press conference, at least here in Russia, so here's more on it:
QUESTION (THROUGH TRANSLATOR): First of all, I wanted to ask another question, but we have an interesting conversation now, therefore I'm going to ask about the following.
It seems to me that you have nothing to disagree about. The regimes in place in Russia and the U.S. cannot be considered fully democratic, especially when compared to some other countries of Europe, for example; for example, the Netherlands.
It seems to me that, as far as Russia is concerned, everything is clear more or less. But as far as the U.S. is concerned, we could probably talk at length.
I'm referring to the great powers that have been assumed by the security services due to which the private lives of citizens are now being monitored by the state.
This could be explained away by the consequences of September 11th, but this has nothing to do with democratic values.
How could you comment on this?
I suggest that you can probably agree, that you can probably shake hands and continue to be friends in future.
Somewhat wordy, and because of that, it's easy to miss the "as far as Russia is concerned, everything is clear more or less" part when reading the transcript. Watching it live, though, this little bit sounded so emphatic it made one want to cheer Kolesnikov - "Go, boy, go!" - and he did go all the way, and because of him, not because of the answers he received, the press conference was very worth watching.
But here're the answers - from Bush:
BUSH: I live in a transparent country. I live in a country where decisions made by government are wide open and people are able to call people to me to account, which many out here do on a regular basis.
Our laws and the reasons why we have laws on the books are perfectly explained to people. Every decision we have made is within the Constitution of the United States. We have a constitution that we uphold.
And if there's a question as to whether or not a law meets that constitution, we have an independent court system through which that law is reviewed.
So I'm perfectly comfortable in telling you, our country is one that safeguards human rights and human dignity, and we resolve our disputes in a peaceful way.
And from Putin:
PUTIN (THROUGH TRANSLATOR): I'd like to support my American counterpart. I'm absolutely confident that democracy is not anarchy. It is not a possibility to do anything you want. It is not the possibility for anyone to rob your own people.
Democracy is, among other things, and first and foremost, the possibility to democratically make democratic laws and the capability of the state to enforce those laws.
You have cited a curious example, the Netherlands. The Netherlands is a monarchy, after all. I have no doubts about the democratic nature of that country.
It is certainly a democratic nation, but this is very different from the United States and Russia. There are great differences between Russia and the U.S. as well.
If we talk about whether we have more or whether we have less democracy is not the right thing to do. But if we talk about how the fundamental principles of democracy are implemented in this or that historic soil, in this or that country, is an option -- it's possible. This does not compromise the dignity of the Netherlands or Russia or the U.S.
Here's Kolesnikov take on it, from his story in the Kommersant (in Russian) that I've already referred to in my previous post:
Perhaps, I should've asked about cooperation in Iran and Iraq. There might have been people in the conference room who were counting on it. But a conversation on the fate of democracy was taking place, and it would've been silly to interrupt it halfway through. I said that, in my opinion, the two president had much in common: the regimes in both countries cannot be called democratic (especially compared to certain European countries - the Netherlands, for example). Regarding Russia, said I, everything is clear, and regarding the United States, one could talk about the increased influence the special services have on people's private lives. Yes, it started after September 11, but does it have anything to do with democracy?
In the end, I offered the presidents to agree with all this, shake each other's hands and continue being friends.
It wasn't modest of me. But to justify myself, I'd like to say that no one was particularly modest during this press conference.
For some reason, the presidents didn't agree. Mr. Bush even tried to interrupt me a few times, hinting with his gestures that he understood everything already.
He explained that America has given its people and the peoples of the world the main thing, freedom and democratic laws, which sustain this freedom.
"Our country is a democratic one," he declared.
It can't be said, though, that he has at least tried to answer the question.
Mr. Putin also didn't agree that there was something wrong with democracy in Russia.
"Democracy isn't anarchy," he declared, "isn't freedom to do all you want."
These words were painfully familiar.
According to Mr. Putin, the example of the Netherlands is an unusual one, but, actually, there's a monarchy over there.
In my view, though, what they've got in the Netherlands is democracy indeed - a democracy so well-developed that it can afford to keep the monarchy.
A bit on Andrei Kolesnikov: before becoming the Kommersant's Kremlin pool reporter, he co-authored Putin's biography (there's even an English translation), and, several months ago, a two-volume collection of his Kommersant stories was published in Russian, documenting the first four years of Putin's reign.
Here's part of a St. Petersburg Times' review of the collection:
The Kremlin has never expressed any displeasure at his frivolous reports, Kolesnikov said. Asked why he wasn't expelled from the Kremlin pool, he said, "If you don't lie, it's difficult to find a reason."
Kolesnikov said he disapproved of the decision to arrest Mikhail Khodorkovsky last year and switched from the more personal "Vladimir Putin" to the more formal "Mr. President" in his reports, which grew increasingly critical. He said the pro-Putin Moving Together youth movement approached him and demanded he drop the critical tone. He ignored the advice, he said.
"Putin's main mistake is that he thinks he knows what this country, its television and its governors should be like, and he's leading it down that path," Kolesnikov said. "I wish he were less sure in this regard."
Kolesnikov also reported on the Orange Revolution, from Kyiv, and here're the links to the two excerpts from one of his pieces that I posted here way back in November and December: the first one, dealing with the politics of the moment, translated by me, and the second one, dealing with the more interesting and immediate aspects of the revolution, translated wonderfully by Michael Subotin (aka Another Misha).
If nothing else, all this provides an awesome insight into what Russian journalism's like - or what it can be like when the right people - like Kolesnikov - get involved. (The rumor is, by the way, that the Kommersant may soon be forced to shut down...)