Anyone who has followed our Russian coverage over the last two years shouldn't have been too surprised to see George Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin cap a growing, substantial relationship by signing an arms-reduction treaty in Moscow on May 24. While the give-and-take between Putin and Bush has sometimes seemed rocky, it has hardly been the stuff of Cold War brinksmanship. And the need to do a deal always seemed stronger to us than the alternatives. Many commentators got that wrong. One who didn't was our Moscow bureau chief, Paul Starobin.
Perhaps that's because Paul was driven to become a close Putin watcher almost from the day he arrived. Paul and his family took up residence in early December, 1999. Putin was named acting president by Boris Yeltsin three weeks later in a surprise New Year's Eve announcement. From that moment on, Paul recalls, everyone wanted to know "Who is Putin?"
As a former Washington reporter who had covered four U.S. Administrations, Paul was impressed by how much Putin wanted a fresh start--not just internationally, but with the Russian people. "What struck me was how soberly he talked about Russia's economic weakness, how far it was behind even Portugal, the European Union's poorest country." With his pale, blue-eyed stare and steely bearing, the former KGB colonel came across as authoritative and chilling. Starobin concluded that he would rule at home with an iron fist if necessary, but that he was an economic liberal when it came to managing the economy and building ties to the West.
The turning point for Putin came after September 11. In his cover story, "Vladimir Putin's Russia" (BW, Nov. 12, 2001), Paul described how the Russian leader acted nearly alone to lead his country into a broad alliance with the U.S. by offering to allow Bush to station American troops on Russia's border. What followed was enhanced military cooperation with Russia and its neighbors, and more recently, a security-economic alliance for the U.S. and Western companies to develop Caspian sea oil ("The Next Oil Frontier," May 27, 2002).
Between his stints as a political observer, Starobin and correspondent Catherine Belton have taken on Russia's rogues and businessmen, looked at the strange doings of Western companies trying to make a go in the new Russia, discovered Enron-like accounting at the nation's largest enterprise, Gazprom (which sparked a government investigation), and profiled some of the new managers arising from the wreckage of the 1990s.
Paul may have been destined to wind up in greater Russia. His great-great-grandfather lived in the town of Starobin in Belarus. Paul met his wife, Nargiza, while on a journalism fellowship in Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan, a few years ago. They now have a son, Samuel, a dog, and a rented dacha outside of Moscow for summer weekends. "It's a land of wild flowers, tall pines, white birches, cuckoo birds, and goats, a little island of tranquility," he says. Great start for a weekend novel, Paul. For the rest of us, the smart, inside story you've been producing will do just fine.
By Bob Dowling, Managing Editor