HONG KONG — As Russian President Vladimir Putin cut a swath through East Asia recently, visiting China, North Korea, Japan and the Russian Far East in a breathless seven days, he gave plenty of indications of the ways in which Russia is likely to change under his leadership.
First and last, Putin’s Russia will exude a very different image — if only because he will be far more image-conscious than his predecessors. One incident at the tail end of his trip, as Putin was leaving the Group of Eight meeting in Okinawa, told the story.
Putin not only bothered to visit an Okinawan sports center, but he took off his shoes and coat, faced off against a young Japanese, threw him to the mat — and then allowed himself to be also thrown.
For those who worry that Putin may be a reincarnation of Soviet dictators, this incident was reassuring. It is impossible to imagine Josef Stalin visiting a foreign sports center, let alone allowing himself to be thrown by a foreigner.
Health considerations alone would have prevented gerontocrats like Leonid Brezhnev, Yuri Andropov and Konstantin Chernenko from even thinking of such a gesture. Even a relatively youthful Mikhail Gorbachev would have considered it way beneath his dignity. Boris Yeltsin may have been able to rock-and-roll on the hustings in 1996, but on this matter he would have agreed with Gorbachev.
Yet Putin not merely went through with the mutual throwing, he or his aides must have arranged that visit in the first place. On television, it looked as if Putin whispered encouragement to the Japanese youth to throw him, when the no doubt hierarchy-minded Japanese lad was stricken with nervous doubts about what he was about to do to the leader of a large and powerful country.
Another revealing moment came when Putin suggested to the other G8 leaders that they correspond by e-mail. Nothing was disclosed about how the other seven leaders greeted this initiative, perhaps because several of the leaders did not wish to reveal that they were computer illiterates.
U.S. President Bill Clinton would no doubt have approved the suggestion, Prime Minister Tony Blair probably wished he had thought of it first. Several of the other leaders look like men who leave the complexities of e-mail to their secretaries; Putin obviously doesn’t.
Putin gains from the initiative which ever way you look at it. If the e-mail suggestion was merely a PR gesture, then it is more relevant and eye-catching than most such gestures at G8 summits. If it was a serious suggestion, then it indicates Putin’s willingness for closer Russian ties with G8 nations, and not just at occasional meetings. As with the e-mail, so with the judo throws — Putin happily breaks the conventional mold.
Putin’s body language at the Okinawa Summit conveyed a similar message. Earlier in the week, at the welcoming ceremony in Beijing on June 18, Putin appeared dour. As he trooped the line of the Chinese honor guard with President Jiang Zemin, it was noticeable that Putin’s eyes were downcast all the way; only Jiang eyed the troops. Even at the signing ceremony for a long, cliche-ridden, virtually meaningless joint declaration Putin appeared less than enthusiastic.
But in Okinawa it was a different story. Putin smiled, chatted and was affable in all directions (except toward the French because of their continued detention of a Russian naval sailing ship). He took care to be photographed close up with Clinton or while consulting with the other leaders. One still photograph told the PR story — there was Putin beaming at the camera while all the others were in various stages of turning away.
Perhaps the two occasions were linked: Putin did not want to be too demonstrative over Russo-Chinese amity lest his welcome in Okinawa be less warm. Curiously, no reports emerged of the G7 leaders asking Putin of his assessment of the Chinese leadership.
Perhaps the G7 leaders thought they knew all about China already. But Putin had three hours with Jiang, twice the allotted amount, and, in one day, saw all four top Chinese leaders, no doubt appreciating that all four were Moscow-trained.
If the Russians didn’t appear to play up Putin’s China visit, the Chinese certainly did. Except for one extremely short item, the official half-hour Chinese television evening news was completely devoted to the Putin visit, an unusual occurrence.
But what gave Putin a starring role in Okinawa was his visit to North Korea. In Beijing, Putin and Jiang opposed possible U.S. plans for missile defense, but in Pyongyang, Putin undercut the lame U.S. excuse for continuing the program: defense against North Korean missiles.
A few days earlier, North Korean negotiators had asked the U.S. for a billion dollars a year to forgo their missile developments. Under Putin pressure, Kim Jong Il seemed to bring down his asking price to help in launching North Korean satellites. The disclosure helped place Putin at center stage in Okinawa. Perhaps more important, Kim Jong Il showed an interest in visiting the Russian regions adjacent to North Korea and may do so as early as September.
Putin ingratiated himself in Beijing, Pyongyang and Okinawa, but what the Russian leader said in his own Far Eastern region had geostrategic significance even though, so far, it has only been briefly reported by Russia’s Interfax news agency.
On the day between Pyongyang and Okinawa, Putin, accompanied by several top ministers, attended a conference at Blagoveschensk on the Sino-Russian border, opposite the Chinese city of Heihe. “If we do not make a real effort to develop Russia’s Far East,” Putin said (in the only extract from his speech so far reported), “then in the next few decades, the Russian population will be speaking mainly Japanese, Chinese and Korean.”
Clearly, Putin intends to pay far more attention to Russia in East Asia. On his way home from Okinawa, he also visited the Kamchatka Peninsula.
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