Page last updated at 07:25 GMT, Tuesday, 6 May 2008 08:25 UK

Insight: The Bush-Putin legacy

By Bridget Kendall
BBC diplomatic correspondent

In the first instalment of a new monthly column, Bridget Kendall discusses the legacy of two presidents nearing the end of eight years in power, George W Bush and Vladimir Putin.

Dmitry Medvedev (l) and Vladimir Putin (30 December 2007)
Dmitry Medvedev (left) has tied himself to his predecessor's policies

When Mr Putin surveys the honour guard of the Presidential Regiment as they goose-step solemnly through the gilded, glittering halls of the Kremlin Palace, bearing the presidential insignia for the inauguration ceremony on Wednesday, what will go through his mind?

Deep down inside will he feel satisfaction that all has gone according to plan?

Or will there be a niggling disquiet as he follows Dmitry Medvedev's progress down the red carpet towards the podium to take the oath of office?

As Mr Putin knows well, it is a long, slow walk - ample time to contemplate the burden of office, and absorb the polite patter of applause from dignitaries and the hot-white glare of media scrutiny.

Except this time the cameras are no longer trained on him. It is his successor, the third president of Russia, who will be in the spotlight.

Joint leadership

Of course, that does not mean Mr Putin is to be elbowed out of sight. Far from it.

He will be there, standing right beside President Medvedev at the Red Square parade on Victory Day on Friday.

You could say that Mr Putin has been lucky... Whether or not he had become president, surely Russia would have begun to pick itself up from the mayhem of the 1990s?

As prime minister, he can still expect to be quoted and filmed in generous portions on Russian television news.

And let us not forget that now he is also head of United Russia, the largest party in the Russian parliament, the Duma, he has deftly consolidated his position in the uncertain world of joint leadership.

Yes, Russian presidents have the right to, and frequently do, fire their prime ministers at will. But they still have to square it with the Duma.

So even if one imagined a date in the future when Mr Medvedev decided the time had come for a reshuffle and a fresh prime minister, he would still have to reckon with Mr Putin's party in the Duma.

Bridget Kendall
1998 to present: BBC diplomatic correspondent
1994-98: Washington correspondent
1989-94: Moscow correspondent

Without its support he would risk public humiliation and a full-blown political crisis.

All comforting thoughts for the outgoing Russian leader.

But it does not change the fact that this ceremony is where the Putin era officially ends and, however tentative or ill-defined at first, a new Medvedev era launches itself.

So it is a good point to pause for thought, to look back as well as forward, especially since this is a transition year for not one president but two.

Though the next US president will not be known until November, nor take up office until early next year, it feels as though the Bush era is almost over.

As usual in the last year of a two-term US presidency, attention has shifted to the prospective new leaders, with the risk that the outgoing incumbent is left limping and quacking.

Economic boom

So how well or badly have these two two-term presidents done? And how do they match up to each other?

Vladimir Putin (l) and George Bush (6 April 2008)
Both Vladimir Putin (left) and George W Bush served two terms as president

You could argue that Mr Putin should come out on top.

"A great, powerful and mighty state" was how he described his vision for Russia when he first took office in May 2000. At the time it seemed a pipe dream.

And his stated goal - to build an economy the size of Portugal's by 2015 - seemed hopelessly ambitious for a decrepit former superpower, teetering on the edge of bankruptcy and unable to service its debts.

But eight years on, Russia is paying back its loans early, its foreign exchange reserves are the world's third largest and its economy is in the midst of a consumer boom.

At home, Mr Putin's domestic popularity ratings are the envy of leaders the world over.

He has brought new stability to the country, raised living standards, increased the power of the central government and internationally turned Russia into a force to be reckoned with.

US decline

Compare that to Mr Bush's legacy.

On the face of it, the US has become weaker and less respected globally since 2000, whereas Russia has become more powerful than it was and is at least taken seriously

The invasion of Iraq and the ensuing quagmire have overshadowed his presidency. The much proclaimed "war on terror" has failed to capture top al-Qaeda leaders and some would say left the world more not less unstable.

Attempts to promote democracy abroad have brought complaints of double standards. Abuse and torture scandals have dented claims of American moral leadership.

And at home, the economic price has been a soaring deficit and looming fears of recession.

On the face of it, the US has become weaker and less respected globally since 2000, whereas Russia has become more powerful than it was and, if not loved universally, is at least taken seriously.

But that of course is not the whole story.

Oil derricks in western Siberia, Russia (archive)
Gas and oil revenues helped lift the Russian economy out of a crisis

Economic progress in Russia has come at a cost - a bloody war in Chechnya; the erosion of some media freedoms; a cowed and dispersed political opposition; the growth of a corrupt state apparatus that now rivals the Soviet Union in the number of the bureaucrats employed; and a lost generation marooned in dying villages and forgotten towns, cut off from the bright lights of the new mega-malls by disintegrating roads and a vicious inflation rate.

Besides, you could say that Mr Putin has been lucky.

Whether or not he had become president, surely Russia would have begun to pick itself up from the mayhem of the 1990s?

Even before he took office, the now much-maligned oligarchs had shown that once bankrupt industrial plants could - under proper management - be transformed into enterprises worth billions of dollars.

And the soaring prices of oil and gas would have poured money into Russia's state coffers to create a runaway boom, whoever was in charge.

Trouble ahead

What is more, some economists warn that Russia may face trouble ahead.

Ordering "strategic resources" like oil and gas to be put back under partial state control has not been good for business.

Mr Medvedev takes over office at a time when Russia is feeling pleased with itself, but complacency is a dangerous instinct in politics

Production levels have begun to decline just as domestic energy consumption looks set to grow, leaving even less energy left over to export.

As a result, investment is urgently needed for new oil and gas fields in the remote north and east of the country.

And more money is needed to prop up the crumbling network of rusting railways, roads and pipelines that has plagued Russia since the Soviet Union's collapse.

Yet while President Putin's policy of limiting foreign participation in national projects remains, it is not clear how much help from outside will be forthcoming.

The usual Russian answer to this is that they will manage on their own, relying on money saved so far and on Russian business investors.

And anyway, in a world where energy prices look set to stay high, why should they worry?

Complacency

But as we have seen, economic fortunes can change quickly.

Who knows where Mr Putin's and Mr Bush's successors may stand in eight years' time? And what sort of comparison will seem appropriate?

Russian troops practice the procession for Victory Day (5 May 2008)
Tanks will parade on Victory Day in Moscow for the first time since 1991

One American strength is a national aptitude for self criticism and re-invention.

The Bush years may have damaged the US as a global brand, but the resilience of the country - both politically and economically - makes it quite possible to imagine a new president who will restore the country's fortunes.

"Change", after all, is the slogan that has resounded most loudly in the current election campaign.

And this leads to a final thought that President Medvedev might ponder as he walks down that red carpet.

Yes, he takes over office at a time when Russia is feeling pleased with itself. But complacency is a dangerous instinct in politics. It is a recipe for stagnation.


Your comments:

History will look back at the Bush years as the beginning of the end of American dominance and hyper power status in world affairs. Coming on the scene a mere decade after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Bush had a historical opportunity to forge American leadership for the future. Instead, his misguided policies have led to the decline of American influence and prestige; while others have moved in to compete with American dominance including the European Union, China, and Russia.
Lynn, New Orleans, USA

One thing I think you overlook in the possibility of a revitalised US is our lack of essential resources, particularly oil. The major (if unstated) reason for the war in Iraq is our need for a sure source of it and, as should be obvious by now, that is a most uncertain goal. Historically, when nations deplete their own resources and have to extend their reach to other parts of the world to find it, they ultimately go into decline. I hope you're right but I have reservations.
Hal Cronkhite, Huntsville, Alabama, USA

Bridget, a brief and very neat comparison of the two administrations. For obvious reasons, perhaps with more emphasis on the Russian side. Not sure what this means, though: "One American strength is a national aptitude for self criticism and re-invention"?
Malai Srinivasan, UK

Regardless of who becomes president, what changes Congress in their well honed capabilities of creating a stand-off where nothing can be accomplished by either side? The best intention of any one leader is ineffectual in the current climate as the US accelerates towards a has- been country. Show me any major problem of the last 20 years that has not gotten worse, education, national debt, health costs, income disparity, faith in government, name me one, please.
G Tilton, Stratham, NH, USA

While Mr Putin's leadership has overall benefited Russia, there is very little good to say about the effect of the Bush Presidency on the US. It's clear Bush has been one of the worst presidents the US has ever had and overcoming his terrible legacy will be a very significant challenge for the US. The damage done - including the immoral war with Iraq, the high deficit, the alienation of nearly all US allies - will take years to correct. It may be too much to overcome.
Rodney, Baltimore, USA

Bridget.Kendall@bbc.co.uk


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