Democracy on hold

Observations on Russia

Physically Vladimir Putin has little charisma. He is on the short side and balding, although he carries himself with the demeanour of the devoted sportsman, which in fact he is. A group of 30 of us met him on Saturday last to discuss the political future of Russia, concentrating mainly on oil, gas and geopolitics.

The event took place at the Russian equivalent of Chequers, a lovely country house called Novo-Ogaryovo, about an hour by car from Moscow, which the Romanovs once used as a weekend retreat. We got three hours with the president, during which he responded to a wide range of questions without notes and without any advisers present.

"We" were a number of western academics and journalists, mostly experts on Russian foreign policy, who had spent the previous week in debate with each other and with Russian ministers.

Many in the group (including myself) had distinct reservations about Putin and his style of government. Under him, Russia has recovered much of the swagger in international relations that it lost in the 1990s, when its economic performance was poor and capital was drained away by the "oligarchs" - people who became super-rich by exploiting loopholes in privatisation laws. Putin has hugely curbed the influence of the oligarchs, but he has also turned back the advance of democracy in Russia, concentrating power in the hands of the state.

The media in Russia today are mostly controlled by the state and Putin rarely has to face the public interrogations from the press that are an intrinsic part of western politics, so it was an exceptional opportunity to ask him whatever questions we chose. Someone who knew Putin well during his time at the KGB told me that in those days he could hardly string two words together in a public setting. That certainly isn't true now. He is assured, knowledgeable and fond of humorous asides - even if, like most politicians, he skirts questions he doesn't like and his answers can be ambiguous.

Russia is at a crucial stage of its development. For the past few years it has had growth rates of between 6 and 7 per cent a year, but it owes this success almost entirely to vast reserves of oil and gas, now mostly back in state hands. Many questions put to Putin centred on how far this can be sustained. Oil is a curse, isn't it? Moreover the Russian state is bureaucratic, slow-moving, and not exactly a stranger to corruption.

Putin's macroeconomic policies have been good. The rouble is now a convertible currency; inflation is coming down. The government has sensibly spent a good deal of the oil and gas revenue on eliminating Russia's external debt. A large fund has been salted away, to be drawn upon should the price of oil dip. But many difficulties remain. To my knowledge, no petro-state has managed to diversify its economy. Why should Russia be any different? Efforts are being made to tackle corruption, but it remains endemic.

Putin's programme of "authoritarian modernisation" is modelled upon success stories elsewhere, such as China, South Korea and Singapore. People want prosperity and stability, the idea runs, more than they value democratic political involvement.

Yet I left the meeting thinking that it is going to be a long haul for Russia, and in the meantime the brief flowering of democratic freedoms that the country experienced after 1991 might become just a distant memory.

This article first appeared in the 18 September 2006 issue of the New Statesman, Shopping: How it became our national disease