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URI professor hears from Putin at Russian conference

By Paul Davis  Posted by Nicolai Petro (about the submitter)     Permalink
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This article originally appeared in The Providence Journal on September 17, 2007.

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SOUTH KINGSTOWN — Helped by rising oil prices and an aggressive improvement plan, Russia has become an economic and political powerhouse, says Nicolai N. Petro, a University of Rhode Island professor who returned Saturday from a five-day conference in Moscow and Kazan.

The rise comes amid strained relations between the Kremlin and the U.S., which has criticized Russia for backsliding on democracy.

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Just last week, the Russian military successfully tested a powerful non-nuclear bomb, the latest show of Russia’s military muscle.

“America is becoming increasingly irrelevant to Russia,” said Petro. The country’s leaders, who are tired of being asked if they are good global citizens, are eager to move forward. Increasingly, they want to deal with countries like China, “countries that are less interested in what you do in your backyard,” Petro said.

Petro was one of 40 journalists, academics and think-tank members who discussed Russia’s future during a conference organized by the Valdai Discussion Club. The informal conferences, cosponsored by a Russian news agency and a private political organization, have been held annually since 2004.

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Various discussions centered on development and religion, but the title of the conference was “Choice and Identity — Russia at the Crossroads.”

The title, said Petro, was picked for dramatic punch. Although the country is changing, experts last week could not agree on whether the country is at a crucial turning point, he said.

Indeed, recent political developments argue otherwise, he said. During the conference, the lower house of parliament approved a new prime minister, Viktor Zubkov.

Zubkov was chosen for the position by Russian President Vladimir Putin two weeks ago — less than six months ahead of a presidential handover slated for March.

Speaking to the parliament, Zubkov said he was in favor of continuing Putin’s current political course, but he said reshuffling the government might improve its efficiency.

Putin has said nearly the same thing, Petro said. In fact, when Putin met with conference participants for several hours last week, he said he wanted the government “to run like a Swiss watch.”

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For Petro, who has written a number of books about Russia, the conference was a rare opportunity to observe Putin up close.

Physically, Putin is small, Petro said. At the conference, he wore cuff links and a business suit. Without referring to notes, he ticked through Zubkov’s political and personal history and answered questions from journalists and others. Through it all he ignored a four-course dinner.

“He is a real policy wonk. He knows everything,” said Petro. “I don’t know when he eats or sleeps. Every day he’s someplace else. And this is a big country.”

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