MIKE PESCA, host:
This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Mike Pesca.
MADELEINE BRAND, host:
And I'm Madeleine Brand.
In a few minutes, is Hollywood creating cynical young moviegoers by releasing a glut of animated movies aimed at kids?
PESCA: But first, 15 years ago today, the leaders of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus issued a statement formally dissolving the Soviet Union. By Christmas, Mikhail Gorbachev resigned as president of the USSR, and by the end of the year the hammer and sickle flew over the Kremlin for the last time.
Fast-forward to the present and we have Vladimir Putin, the president of Russia, having to seriously rebut charges that he has been out poisoning his political enemies. It raises the question, how are we to think of Russia? Are they ally, a rogue, something of both?
Joining me is Strobe Talbott, deputy secretary of state under President Clinton and currently president of the Brookings Institution. And Mr. Talbott, should the U.S. think of Russia as a friend who sometimes annoys us, like France, or an uneasy ally, something to really worry about if things go a little wrong, like China?
Mr. STROBE TALBOTT (Brookings Institution): Both of the above, and maybe some other things too. Russia, as you made clear, Mike, in your set-up, has gone through an extraordinary transformation. It's been a very difficult transformation.
But it's unquestionably been one, overall, in the right direction, and one that points Russia towards eventually becoming a modern normal country, which is what a lot of Russians say they aspire to be. But it's been tough and it's going to continue to be tough, and they will be problematic partners.
PESCA: What about the Russian people? Have they benefited from 15 years of independence from communism?
Mr. TALBOTT: Well, it's sort of like the famous Ronald Reagan question from 1980. Are the Russians better off today than they were under communism? And generally speaking, the answer is yes, and in several respects. Materially better off, a lot of them, although there are some that have been losers as the old state system has collapsed. They also have more freedoms now than they had under communism, but they do not have more freedoms than they had during the Yeltsin period.
President Putin has imposed stability, which a lot of Russians very much want, and a firm hand at the top, which a lot of Russians very much want, but at the expense of free press, a really vital pluralistic democracy, and the KGB - that is to say the old KGB, the security organs, are now back. And also there's a terrible problem with corruption.
PESCA: We as Americans would like to think that the clamp-down on civil rights needn't go hand and hand with a strong government, but in Russia's case need it?
Mr. TALBOTT: No. I don't think it is necessary or inevitable. I think it's very largely a function of the kind of accidental presidency of Mr. Putin himself, who comes out of that background, who has brought a lot of people from the security services with him. And we just have to hope - and I think a lot of Russians hope - that this will be a passing phase.
PESCA: How much of the situation in Russia, credit or blame, can be laid at the feet of Mr. Putin? Or on the other hand, maybe you would say that Russia is shaped by circumstance very much.
Mr. TALBOTT: No, I think Mr. Putin deserves, as it were, both credit for some things that are going pretty well and blame for some things that are moving in an ominous direction. One of his favorite phrases is the vertical of power. That doesn't sound like terribly good English, but that is the Russian phrase.
And what it basically means is restoring a system which is very top down and center outward, with him at the top and him at the center, which means that he does bear a lot of responsibility for what's going on, including that increased political stability that we were talking about a moment ago, but also some of the more worrisome stuff that comes with it.
PESCA: What does the average Russian think of Vladimir Putin?
Mr. TALBOTT: The political polls indicate that he's generally pretty popular. His poll ratings would be the envy of our own president. His predecessor, Boris Yeltsin, was down into the single digits a couple of times. There's no question that Russia, because of its long authoritarian past, and indeed its totalitarian past under the communists, has a political culture that is quite different from ours in the West.
But when they decided - and by the way, there's a name that we really need to emphasize here - when Mikhail Gorbachev decided no longer to have a system based on the big lie and on brute force, Russia under his leadership made a choice that we have to hope is irreversible, to move towards joining the outside world and joining the modern world.
PESCA: Former diplomat and journalist Strobe Talbott is president of the Brookings Institution and author of "The Russia Hand: A Memoir of Presidential Diplomacy." Thank you, sir. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.
Initial hopes that the U.S. and post-Soviet Russia could become firm allies have been called into question. Strobe Talbott -- deputy Secretary of State under President Clinton, now head of the Brookings Institution -- discusses the U.S. relationship with Russia.
The Soviet Union officially dissolved 15 years ago Friday. Initial hopes that the United States and Russia could become firm allies have recently been called into question. Strobe Talbott -- deputy Secretary of State under President Clinton and current president of the Brookings Institution -- talks with Mike Pesca about the U.S. relationship with Russia.