Vladimir Pozner on Iran, Syria, the United States, and Putin

Vladimir Pozner hosts a very popular interview show, simply called Pozner, on Russian television, and he doesn’t pull his punches. When I last spoke with him eighteen years ago, he described himself as a “man of the left.” I was curious to find out if that had changed. I walked up the stairs to his fashionable apartment in Moscow to talk with him about U.S. and Russian politics, problems in the new Russia, and President Vladimir Putin.

Born in New York in 1934, Pozner lived in the United States until he was eighteen, when he moved to the USSR with his family. In the 1980s, he was well-known as an articulate, English-speaking defender of Kremlin policies. He appeared frequently on ABC’s Nightline. In 1985, he and U.S. talk show host Phil Donahue launched Spacebridge, a series of live discussions between groups of U.S. and Soviet citizens on culture and politics.

In the 1990s, Pozner and Donahue co-hosted a CNBC talk show, fittingly titled Pozner/Donahue. After refusing to allow then-CNBC President Roger Ailes to approve or reject topics or guests, describing it as censorship, Pozner returned to Moscow, where he has hosted his own weekly television show since 2011. At age eighty-five, Pozner, who tells me he plays tennis twice a week, looks fit and healthy.

– Do you think the Trump Administration, National Security Adviser John Bolton in particular, is headed towards military strikes on Iran?

– Bolton is looking for trouble. The U.S. administration would very much like to get rid of the current Iranian leadership. There’s always the simple way of doing it: invade, knock them out, topple them.

It could be extremely dangerous. It always is. If you look in Iraq, a disaster. Things were very bad under Saddam Hussein. Things are much worse after Hussein. Thousands died. The American invasion did nothing to help the people of Iraq. And I don’t think they can do anything good for the people of Iran who are, by and large, very supportive of their government.

– Russia has intervened in Syria. Even if you oppose the U.S. being there, along with interference from the Saudis and Turks, why should the Russians be involved in Syria?

– I fully agree that Russia shouldn’t be there. Neither should anyone else be there. Let the Syrians resolve it. Let the U.N. get involved. There’s no one country, or two countries or five countries that have the right to get involved.

– The Russian military has now set up two military bases in Syria, with forty-nine year leases with possible extensions for another twenty-five years. That looks like a long-term stay.

– I quite agree with you. Putin won’t put it that way. It’s an issue of national interests. They feel that having a force in that part of the world and having influence is important for Russia. Russia has always had a relationship with those countries and should preserve it.

[On his own, Pozner raised the issue of Crimea. In 2014 the government of Ukraine was overthrown and a pro-western regime came to power. In response Russia split Crimea off from Ukraine and backed ethnic Russian rebels fighting in eastern Ukraine. In Pozner’s view, Russia was protecting its borders.]

– Imagine that you have a revolution in Mexico. A completely different government comes to power, and it’s a little bit afraid of Big Brother up there. So it goes to the Russians and says, “Can you send us ten divisions to protect our border?” Do you think the United States would allow that?

Now Ukraine goes West. NATO appears on this border. Russians won’t stand for that. The question is not “Did they have the political right? Is this acceptable?” No. It’s about a country worried about its own existence. It’s an existential threat.

– Is the disparity of wealth in Russia too great?

– It’s much too great. But it’s strange that [this issue] should be brought up by a [citizen of a] country like the U.S. where you have even greater disparity of wealth. In the West it’s common except in the Scandinavian countries. Disparity of wealth is part of the market economy. Some people have billions and some people have very little. I’m against that. That’s why I’m in favor of socialism as an idea.

– In the past, you have described yourself as a man of the left. You had criticisms of the old Soviet Union, but you felt the principles of Marxism and socialism were still valid. Looking back on it now, is that still your view?

– Yes and no. I do think the ideas of socialism are wonderful, and I don’t like capitalism as a system. It’s not a fair system. It’s inhuman very often. However, I’m not sure socialism is possible, at least the socialism that Marx proposed.

I think the ideas that are more or less present in the Scandinavian countries are wonderful ideas. And the Scandinavian countries are proof of that. They live more democratically, with greater freedom and more happily than in any other country I’ve visited.

– I’m going to present some of the common views in the United States about Putin and let you respond. He’s a dictator. There are elections, but they’re rigged. He won’t really allow opposition, so the political situation is pretty bad in Russia.

– No, he’s not a dictator; he’s an autocrat. The elections aren’t rigged. As of today, the majority of Russians support Putin for a variety of reasons. He’s got no opposition. The opposition has not really been allowed to flourish. So there’s very little choice in that sense.

For most Russians, Putin is a kind of a national hero, someone who has stood up for Russia in very bad times, when Russia was on her knees, and has brought the country back. Whereas under (former Russian President Boris) Yeltsin, Russia was totally ignored.

– What form does being an autocrat take?

– You can’t criticize him publicly, except perhaps on some private media outlets. But they’re very limited.

– Could you criticize him on your show?

– No. No. I could say “I don’t agree with this law that Mr. Putin has signed.” I can say that, and I’ve done it. I can’t say “It’s too bad he hasn’t resigned. He’s been in power much too long.” One clever Englishman said, “Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Well, that applies.

By Reese Erlich The Progressive magazine