Russia: The beggar becomes the belligerent

From threats over weapons systems to blame for the Litvinenko murder, President Putin is adopting a

Yury Podgornov, aged 35, is a successful Russian businessman. He sits in his leather-lined, brand-new four-wheel drive, responding to calls on his mobile phone in terse, staccato sentences, as though each word carries a price tag. This is a man who has profit and loss etched into every calculation. Even his lack of language skills is translated into lost earnings.

"Not speaking English costs me about $2,000 a month, I reckon," he says.

He is friendly and outgoing, keen to make contact and exchange opinions, surely a beneficiary of the changes in post-communist Russia that have allowed private commerce to flourish and links with the outside world to spread. But, astonishingly, that does not endear those western governments that offered loans or advice in the 1990s to him - far from it. "The west saw the Soviet Union as an enemy. It only wanted reform and democracy in order to weaken us," he tells me, "not to seize our country, but to destabilise it and get cheap access to our resources."

This is a common sentiment in Russia today, a paranoid refrain that creeps into ordinary conversations.

"It was rich people who destroyed the Soviet Union, with the help of external enemies," one retired engineer says. "We have to be ready to stop American occupiers from trying to organise protests to bring down our government," says a fresh-faced, 17-year-old student. Even an old drunk who accosts me outside a shop repeats the litany. "Russians dislike foreigners now, especially Americans," he says. "We don't like them telling us what to do."

In a country where television news bulletins sag under the weight of presidential utterances, and opposition views are largely exiled to peripheral publications, you don't need to look far for the source of this combativeness. These days Vladimir Putin's speeches and interviews are littered with comments imbued with suspicion of western intentions.

Take his annual address to parliament in April, where he accused unnamed foreign countries of wanting to plunder Russia's natural resources. Funds from abroad, he said, were being used to undermine his country's political and economic independence. What he called "democratic ideology" had become a pretext to meddle in Russia's domestic politics.

These past few weeks, you could take your pick of several encounters he has had with the press in which he has repeatedly lashed out at US plans for a missile shield as "pure imperialism" that will restart the arms race. His latest threat is that if the US will not review its plans, we can expect Russia to develop new offensive weapons and aim them at targets in Europe.

How different from the Putin of seven years ago, who entreated western countries to invest more, who spoke of Russia being part of European culture and who, when asked, said he did not rule out Russia one day joining Nato.

Today's bellicose threats, redolent with Cold War phrases, are chilling in comparison. So how did we get to the stage where it appears the world could be plunged into a renewed east-west confrontation?

Scarred decade

To some extent, the shift in Russian perceptions of the west is an inevitable reaction to what most Russians have experienced over the past two decades. When one considers that, at the end of 1991, their country disappeared overnight and all they got in return was closed borders where once they could freely visit cousins in Ukraine, plus years of terrifyingly rampant hyperinflation and a president prepared to bomb his own parliament as well as send young Russian conscripts off to war in Chechnya, it is not all that surprising.

"You normally only see a population disappearance on this scale when a country has been through civil war," notes one World Health Organisation official on the impact of rising infant mortality and death rates for adults in the mid-1990s.

"It was worse than the blockade," was the verdict on the 1990s of an old lady whose daughter and husband both died in her arms, one of cancer, the other of a heart attack. This woman survived the siege of Leningrad by the Nazis in the Second World War by eating grass and shoe leather. But the relentless trauma of rising prices, unpaid wages and pensions and the constant political uncertainty of Yeltsin's Russia were worse, in her opinion.

For many Russians, it is Boris Yeltsin, along with the last Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, whom they hold most responsible for turning their country from superpower into beggar. Though he was given a full state funeral when he died this spring, and many thousands of Muscovites came to pay their respects, reactions elsewhere to Yeltsin's passing were less generous. "He should have been put on trial for what he did," one person told me. "He humiliated Russia. The whole world was laughing at us."

So who can blame Russians for welcoming the relative stability Putin has presided over during the past seven years, even if other aspects of his rule have cast an authoritarian shadow? In the back-to-front world of Russian politics, it is not too little democracy that many people fear, but too much of it. This, I discovered, is why some are calling for Putin to stay on for a third term. Not because they admire him - privately, many say that he and his cronies are just as corrupt and disdainful of others as their communist predecessors were - but because they mistrust the idea of democracy, resent the west for pushing it, and fear what might happen as a result of next year's elections. Recent experience has taught them that change is usually for the worse and best avoided.

Besides this, the revenues the government is enjoying from high oil and gas prices have transformed its self-image. The Kremlin relishes the potential global influence it can wield as a major energy provider. Though more remote towns and villages would argue that they are still being starved of support from federal coffers, Russia's budget is regularly in surplus. It is repaying foreign debts ahead of time. It no longer believes it needs outside help to develop. Advice, training and foreign investment are no longer welcomed unconditionally. Even foreign charities are viewed with suspicion.

Wayward adolescent

Now that Russia is stronger economically and geostrategically, it resents being taken advantage of. Again and again in his speeches, Putin talks about wanting to be treated as an equal partner. Some in the west have a deepening suspicion that this is a ploy by Russia's leadership to avoid having to be held to account for its actions.

"The west still treats Russia as though it is a wayward adolescent that needs to be taught how to behave," a Kremlin insider told me.

"Russia has not yet learned that issuing threats is not the way to enhance co-operation," was the response of one western diplomat. "The Kremlin has become completely allergic to us offering even constructive criticism," was the comment of another senior diplomat, observing that Russia's position towards the west has been hardening ever since the Beslan tragedy in 2004.

But the alarming slide in relations with Russia cannot be attributed entirely to a thin-skinned president and a popular backlash dating from the 1990s. The west also shares some of the blame. Had the US not walked out of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, or tried to build permanent bases for its troops in former Soviet republics in central Asia, would relations be in a better state? Yes, probably. Had there been no US-led invasion of Iraq, would Putin be accusing Washington of imperialism? Maybe not.

And had the new members of the European Union, once unwilling members of the Soviet bloc, not made so patently clear their suspicion of their large eastern neighbour, would Russia be so touchy about what it calls its "near abroad"?

Certainly Russian antagonism towards Europe has deepened recently. The row over Washington's missile shield in Europe, like the crisis with Britain over the Litvinenko murder, and the possible clash to come over Kosovo's future, are only the latest disagreements to sour relations. The worry is that there are now so many strains, they might tip the balance from ally to adversary.

So how will east-west relations fare at the G8 summit? We need to remember three factors.

One is that this G8 summit marks a parting of the ways: Britain, France, Germany and soon the US will have new leaders, and a fresh confi guration could pave the way for a different, and tougher, approach to Russia. Already the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, is less forgiving of Moscow posturing than her predecessor was. In France, President Nicolas Sarkozy may also be less inclined to play Russia off against the United States. The next US president might well change the dynamic completely.

The second is that Putin will probably no longer be president this time next year. Perhaps he will seek to carry on pulling the strings from behind the throne. But recent history suggests that the person in charge at the Kremlin soon becomes his own master. How his still uniden tified successor will decide to use the extensive powers he will wield, it is impossible to predict.

But one final reassuring thought: the paradox of modern Russia is that, alongside the apparent hostility towards the west, on a day-to-day level, most middle-class Russians enjoy how their lives have become more similar to those in the west. They take for granted shopping for underwear at Marks & Spencer, or fitting Ikea cupboards into their small, crowded flats. They, too, book holidays to Turkey or Egypt to escape the winter chill. They watch the same Hollywood blockbusters as we do, and listen to the same music. The gilded elite of Moscow make London their second home and send their children to boarding schools in Britain, to ensure they acquire the fluency in English that Yury Podgornov now so regrets the absence of.

Even the poor can be well disposed towards a western visitor. "Do you know any foreigner who could put some investment in our town or save our factory from going under?" is a common question I meet in more remote and needy corners of the provinces.

If today's Russians want stability so they can live their lives quietly and concentrate on getting more prosperous and becoming a normal country for a change, the last thing they want is relations with the west so strained that these are a threat to peace. Russia may not be a democracy in the western sense, but popular sentiment can still make a difference.

Bridget Kendall is BBC diplomatic correspondent and a former Moscow correspondent

This article first appeared in the 11 June 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Russia: The beggar becomes the belligerent