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FAREED ZAKARIA GPS

Interview With Russian President Dmitry Medvedev

Aired September 20, 2009 - 13:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


FAREED ZAKARIA, HOST: This is GPS, the GLOBAL PUBLIC SQUARE. Welcome to all of you in the United States and around the world. I'm Fareed Zakaria.

This week, we have something very special and important - an exclusive interview with the president of Russia, Dmitry Medvedev. It is, I believe, the longest and most comprehensive interview he has given since assuming office over a year ago.

Let me tell you why I think the interview is important. When we try to understand what the world is going to look like in the future, will it be peaceful? Will there be more international cooperation? The focus inevitably turns to Russia.

There are many new great powers emerging in - in the international system, China and India, most obviously. But of all the powers in the world, Russia occupies a unique position. No one is quite sure what Russia wants. Does it want to be part of the new global structure of power, or does it see this new structure as too western dominated and it wishes to set itself apart - it wishes to be an opponent, a spoiler? One thing is for sure - it wants power and influence. It has not reconciled itself to its diminished place on the map since 1990.

Dean Acheson once said of Britain after World War II, "It has lost its empire and has not found its role." This is doubly true of Russia today.

Some people look at Russia and have concluded that the picture's all bad, and certainly in the last few years Russia has moved backward on a number of measures of democracy and human rights. But, overall, it still remains a much more open and free society than it was during the communist era. And even today, there do appear to be two Russias - one characterized by a thuggish police state that uses its oil wealth to wield power, stifle civil society, democracy and of free press. The other is the Russia of younger people - more modern, connected to the world, aware of global trends and perhaps hoping that Russia will participate in them more fully.

In a way, these two pictures of Russia have been around for a while. A hundred and fifty years ago, a furious debate erupted among Russian intellectuals. On the one hand, there were the Slavophiles who believed Russia was unique, different from the west and would evolve on its own path. On the other side were the westernizers who believed that Russia needed to catch up with modernity, and this meant learning from and cooperating with the West. In the last few years, the insular, closed Russia has dominated the scene - but could a new, more modern, more cooperative Russia be emerging? One reason some people have some hope is that the new president of Russia talks in tones quite different from those of Vladimir Putin - the Prime Minister who most believe is the true ruler of the country. Just last week, a day before I met with him, Medvedev penned an extraordinary article for a Russian website. It was a frontal critique of Russia today, its oil-based economy, its bad business habits, its corruption and its unhealthy civil society.

Now, does this mean Medvedev intends to genuinely reform Russia? Can he? Does he have any power anyway?

Well, listen in.

(BEGIN VIDEO TAPE)

ZACARIA (on camera): President Medvedev, thank you again for joining us. I have read the constitution and I understand the division...

MEDVEDEV: Constitution of...?

ZAKARIA: Russian constitution, and I understand the division of roles between the president and the prime minister, and my understanding, reading it on paper, is the president is the superior office. And so my question to you is, are you Vladimir Putin's boss?

MEDVEDEV (through translator): I would be upset if you didn't ask me this question. Our interview in this case would be considered as a failure. Under the constitution, in this country, there is one commander in chief, there is only one guarantor of the constitution - the head of state, and that's the president of the country whom you are now talking to.

ZAKARIA: You know why I'm asking you this, Mr. President, because lots of people say Dmitry Medvedev is a - a very fine lawyer, he sounds like a reformist, he says all these things about what needs to happen in Russia, except he has no power. All the power is held by Prime Minister Putin, so he is the ceremonial facade. It doesn't really matter what he thinks. What do you say to them?

MEDVEDEV (through translator): As for the rest of it, well, it's even useless talking about these. In our country, there's so much red tape nobody could even lift a finger without me signing a paper first, even if they have different opinions about who's in charge. That's an absolutely clear thing for anyone who wants to sort out this issue, but those who believe in those stereotypes, let them do it. Sometimes people prefer to perceive things according to those stigmas.

ZAKARIA: But you're saying that nothing happens without your signature. So, in fact, you are making all the decisions with - certainly with regard to foreign policy and (inaudible) policy?

MEDVEDEV (through translator): It's even strange to hear you saying that, foreign policy? Only one man does it in this country - the president. You can see it everywhere. I'm on foreign business trips all the time. Naturally, all the directives, all the decisions are adopted by the president. All the decisions which require discussion are adopted by the Security Council, but again, they are signed by the president.

ZAKARIA: Do you think you are more liberal than Vladimir Putin?

MEDVEDEV (through translator): That's a good question. Vladimir Putin, when he met with his colleagues and with political analysts, he told me that he and I have the same blood. If you understand, by blood, our education, then yes, that's the case. And I want you to know - I'm sure you know about this already - I want our readers - TV viewers know about that too.

Putin has a degree in law. He was not raised in the KGB or intelligence. He graduated from one of the country's best universities. Therefore, we are close in our convictions.

Now, when talking about some nuances and preferences, yes, clearly there could be differences. I have my own views; he has his own views. For eight years, he's been implementing his views quite successfully. There are no two identical persons in the world, no two identical leaders.

ZAKARIA: Do you think you're doing a good job as president?

MEDVEDEV (through translator): It's not for me to judge to the full extent whether I have succeeded in doing something or not. Though there are some objective indicators that exist, yes.

ZAKARIA: But if you are doing a good job, it would make perfect sense for you to run again in 2012, correct?

MEDVEDEV (through translator): Yes, certainly, if the conditions are right, why not?

ZAKARIA: Let me ask you about US-Russian relations. What do you think of President Obama? You spent a fair amount of time with him?

MEDVEDEV (through translator): I like to communicate with President Obama. We held a - a very serious meeting with him during his visit to Russia. I calculated that we had spent eight hours together. That's quite a lot of time for such type of contacts. Very often the talks between the presidents include official ceremonies, lunches - last two, two and a half hours, as it was in fact the case with our American colleagues previously. This time around we talked for eight hours, and I'm thankful to my colleague for the fact that he wants to sort out many problems. That's important.

He has another good quality - he listens to your arguments. He formulates his position, which may not necessarily coincide with the Russian position, but at least this is a result of a thought-out policy, thought-out approach as to what is useful or not useful to the United States of America. In that sense, it's comfortable to deal with him. But what people expect from us is results, not just good joint time spent together, although that is important too. ZAKARIA: But does it help that you're the same generation - that you're about the same age?

MEDVEDEV (through translator): I think so. I think so. But not just of the same generation but also of a similar education. I mentioned it to President Obama when we had our first meeting that when he was at the helm of Yale Law Review, if I'm not mistaken - Harvard is it or Yale? Harvard - OK - that's as good. Anyway, I read both the Harvard and the Yale Law Reviews when I was a post-graduate student myself. So it's also important, you know - We'll see. What really matters here is that we try and hear each other.

(END VIDEO TAPE)

ZAKARIA: What strikes one about the interview with President Medvedev - what struck me about those answers was, first, he's a very bright, articulate man. He knows his mind. He speaks and thinks fast on his feet. He understands English, by the way. He did not use the (INAUDIBLE) for simultaneous translation throughout the interview. He understood all of my questions and spoke to me before and after the interview in English, but clearly does not trust that in a formal interview he will say exactly what he wants to say in English.

He bristled at the suggestion that he was not in charge, though most Russia experts do believe that Prime Minister Putin wields all the power, and he was very positively inclined towards President Obama. All in all, a good start. Then we went on to Iran and Israel and the possibility of war in the Middle East.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO TAPE)

ZAKARIA: Russia has said that it does not want Iran to develop nuclear weapons. Prime Minister Putin has said that, you have said that. Yet the International Atomic Energy Agency says Iran is not cooperating to give the world confidence that it has a purely civilian program. Iran says it will no longer negotiate on this issue. And yet Russia says it will not support any further sanctions against Iran. So is the policy of not wanting Iran to develop nuclear weapons - on Russia's part, are these empty words or do you have concrete steps you are willing to take to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons?

MEDVEDEV (through translator): We do have our own very developed relations with Iran. I truly believe that Iran needs a system of motives, of incentives with regards to its nuclear problem. No doubt about that.

On September 9th, Iran has transferred their proposals dedicated to these most complex issues, and currently they are being analyzed. Some people are already saying that is not enough, that those proposals are too generic. You know, I believe it is the duty of all countries involved on this matter to at least study these proposals.

ZAKARIA: Is Russia willing to step up to its responsibilities as a - a world power and press in the United Nations and in other ways to ensure that Iran does cooperate?

MEDVEDEV (through translator): Iran must cooperate with IAEA, that's for sure, if they want to develop nuclear energy program. It is their duty, not a choice. Otherwise, indeed, the question will always be asked, what are they up to after all? That's very clear.

ZAKARIA: And Russia is willing to exercise its responsibilities?

MEDVEDEV (through translator): Of course. Of course.

ZAKARIA: Let me ask you about another issue relating to this. Russia has agreed to sell Iran the S-300 anti-aircraft, anti-missile system. When will you deliver it to Iran?

MEDVEDEV (through translator): We have never delivered anything to Iran - we will not deliver anything to Iran which is beyond international law. This implies that we have something to deliver, but they're always defensive systems. That's our clear-cut position, and I will adhere to that when adopting final decision on all existing contracts with Iran.

ZAKARIA: You know that there are many people in Israel who say that if you deliver that system, the Israelis will feel they will have to strike Iran before the system is deployed, because once that system is deployed, an Israeli attack on Iran becomes much more difficult. So by delivering the system, you open up a window or a period of considerable tension.

MEDVEDEV (through translator): In one hour I will talk with the president of Israel, Mr. Peres, who when recently visiting me in Sochi told me a very important thing to all of us. He said, Israel doesn't intend to deliver any strike against Iran. He said, we are a peaceful country, we will not deal such a blow. Therefore any deliveries of systems - defensive systems which are aimed at protecting cannot increase danger, they should reduce it.

Now if there are people who still have such plans, I believe they should reflect on all of these things, our task being not to enhance Iran or to weaken Israel or vice-versa. Our task boils down to making sure that the Middle East is a quiet, normal place for all to live in. That's the task of the day.

ZAKARIA: When Prime Minister Netanyahu was in Moscow, did you say this to him?

MEDVEDEV (through translator): Well, Prime Minister Netanyahu has visited Moscow. The Israelis did it behind closed doors, which was their decision. Frankly, I don't quite understand why they did that, but that's the decision of our partners, so we took accepted it. I met with him, yes.

ZAKARIA: If Israel were to attack Iran, would Russia support Iran in such a conflict?

MEDVEDEV (through translator): Russia will not support anyone or act in such circumstances. We are peaceful country. That's the worst thing you can imagine. I had to explain this before. Let's try it once again.

What would follow that? First, a humanitarian catastrophe, a great number of refugees and an Iranian desire for revenge, not only to Israel but - let's be frank about it - but other countries as well, followed by a very unpredictable developments in the region. I believe that the scale of such a calamity would be hard to measure. Therefore prior to deciding on such a strike, we need to weigh the situation cautiously. That would be absolutely sensible. But Israeli colleagues told me they don't want to do that, and I trust them.

ZAKARIA: So you expect no Israeli strike on - on Iran?

MEDVEDEV (through translator): I hope that this decision will not be taken.

ZAKARIA: Let me ask you about US-Russian relations. President Obama and Mrs. Clinton have talked about a reset of relations. Your ambassador to NATO said that after the Obama-Medvedev meetings, if a good result takes place, it could usher in a new era in Russian- American relations. What concretely are you looking for from the American administration?

MEDVEDEV (through translator): I expect that our American partners will hear us on the Ukraine and Georgia issues. As for Ukraine, no referendum was carried out there. Two-thirds of the population do not support joining NATO in that country, but certain leaders in the Ukraine are relentless, in a constant pursuit to push the state into NATO.

We do have normal good relations with the Northern Alliance. They are now stabilized after the harsh period of last year. Now we want to develop them further, but one needs to remember that NATO is a military block, as its missiles are pointed at Russia, and if the number of countries joining NATO is getting greater and greater and NATO approaching Russia, it doesn't give us any satisfaction. We don't like it. We're openly stating that.

ZAKARIA: I was going to ask you, Mr. President, about the comments that Vice President Biden made about Russia, but then I found an even more critical analysis of - of Russia's situation, and it was an article that said that Russia was a primitive economy, based on raw materials and endemic corruption, a semi-Soviet private sphere, a fragile democracy and goes - went on and on. This is an article, of course, that you wrote a few days ago.

What I was wondering is who is responsible for this condition? Because many of the things you point to have gotten worse in the last ten years. The world economic forum has a competitiveness index. This year Russia dropped 12 places on that index. It's now 63rd. It's behind Mexico and Indonesia. Transparency International has a corruption index. Russia now ties with Bangladesh and Syria on that index. The Economist Magazine says the government has utterly failed to create a legal and political structure to support business and enterprise. So isn't your article a powerful indictment of your own administration? MEDVEDEV (through translator): It's a good question, by the way. I don't know if you trust this indexes, but I don't trust them too much. But in what you have just laid out, there is undoubtedly reason behind it. I don't like the fact it's being geared towards raw materials, yes. The level of corruption is categorically unacceptable.

What you have cited and what I have cited in my own article, all of that emerged not just in the past decade; it surfaced in the Soviet era and in the 1990s. The truth of the matter is the overall living standard and the number of people who have become much wealthier have substantially grown over the past ten years. That's a firm fact. I have mentioned this many times.

ZAKARIA: But that's because of the price of oil. That's not because of...

MEDVEDEV (through translator): No, no, no, no, no. Just - I should say - wait a second. In 1990s there were different upheavals with the prices on oil. When I worked in the university in the 1990s, like President Obama, my salary was just $10 or $15 per month. Not much, is it?

So, not all of this is the result of hikes on oil prices. We of course need to change the system of economy. That's absolutely clear.

As far as Mr. Biden's article is concerned, we know about our own deficiencies, but to draw quite questionable conclusions is wrong, in my opinion. What has Mr. Biden in fact said? He said almost literally the following: Russia agrees with us on the nuclear weapons issue because their economy is weak and they cannot maintain that weaponry themselves. It's a mistake!

First, the nuclear weapons are such a sphere of influence that any state who has it pays great attention to it, and I'm sure that even the weakest states would reduce their defense expenditures last of all. Therefore, it is my understanding that if this is a reflection of the opinion of one individual, then it's the question for the US administration. But if it's a reflection of the policy, then we'll need to give it thought, about what's going on and what's about to happen.

But I've always thought that at the end of the day the US foreign policy is defined by one man - the President of the United States.

(END VIDEO TAPE)

ZAKARIA: In the segment you just saw, I think President Medvedev made some news. First, he confirmed the meeting with Prime Minister Netanyahu. This was a secret meeting that took place in Moscow, and he confirmed that it did in fact happen.

He also sounded somewhat calm about the possibility of an Israeli strike. He seemed to have gotten some assurances - particularly from President Peres - that the Israelis were not going to strike. He was also tougher on the Iranians than I've heard him or Prime Minister Putin before, insisting that they cooperate with the International Atomic Energy Agency.

And finally, what I was struck by was his comments on Vice President Biden's rather disparaging set of comments about Russia. I didn't actually ask him about that - he decided to bring it up himself and went into some length about how disappointed he was about that, so I think those - those comments really rankled.

What I asked him next about was democracy in Russia - tough subject, coming up.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO TAPE)

ZAKARIA: What would be your advice - based on long years of experience - to the United States in Afghanistan?

MEDVEDEV (through translator): We do indeed have our difficult experience of Afghanistan. There's absolutely clear - the decisions taken at the period - and Soviet troops into Afghanistan without fully calculating. But currently the situation is quite different. Yes. Yes, yes. And I might as well say that basically we're all interested in things with - that the United States of America, the countries of the alliance would be able to deliver that.

Even more than that, we're interested in Afghanistan becoming a modern sustained government that would rule in the best interests of its people, that the provinces of Afghanistan are assembled, that terrorists not divide them between themselves, that the enormous influx of headwind from Afghanistan be stopped, which is a huge common problem.

Now, as regards to my advice, I just have one. The Afghani people should be treated with respect to their life and their traditions. One should not speed up things or try to give them readymade recipes for domestic organization which they are not ready to take as of yet.

Even though democracy is a universal value, at the same time, it should be adjusted to the local habits and traditions and commensurable to the political mentality of the people there. Only then it stands a chance to succeed.

ZAKARIA: A lot of people look at democracy in Russia and feel that it has gone backward in terms of the freedoms of press, the safety of journalists, the ability of opposition leaders and movements to contest elections, the amount of harassment that they face. In all of these ways, democracy has gone backward.

What do you say to them?

MEDVEDEV (through translator): You have electronic and you have print press, let alone the Internet media.

Some people say they are oppressed, but I don't think that's an honor position. In reality, any question which you want to raise in mass media is being raised without a problem by journalists.

However, there are circumstances when people try to pressure journalists. I will not hide it from you. In fact, very often that happens in the provinces where regional bosses probably don't like some critical articles written against them.

But if some bosses like it or not, in the modern age of global information there are no subjects you can conceal. You can sometimes be silent about or hold back certain things on TV, but remembering the fact that there are around 40 million Internet users in Russia today, people from across the country will learn of the news within five minutes.

Therefore, trying to curtail press freedom is a totally hopeless thing to do.

But certainly I don't think we are living in an ideal world, and I'm not always open for dialogue with this respect. Therefore, over the recent years, to sum it up, our political system has become more mature and, as I said in my article I have written, it is far from being ideal, which is true.

And in conclusion, to answer this question, I will try to draw attention to the fact that our democracy is quite young. Russia has never known a democratic society prior to the existence of this new country. Democracy never existed in the Soviet times.

Democracy in our country has been existing only for 18 years now, which is not that much when compared to the United States of America.

ZAKARIA: Mr. Medvedev, I have to say to you, when I talk to Russians about corruption, they will say part of the problem, a very central part, is that the Russian government has created a system of such a strong state with so much influence that the state has that the corruption actually maintains the power and position of the Russian regime.

So it's easy to talk about corruption in the abstract, but corruption is at the heart of the Kremlin's ability to control this country.

MEDVEDEV (through translator): I don't think that's a good point. It's easy to say that corruption has turned into part of the national system, that everybody needs it and basically it helps to govern the country.

That's not true at all. Had it been the case, we wouldn't have faced problems. Corruption is not an efficient means to control the economy, though it exists in any given country.

Many countries face high levels of corruption and organized crime. Let's recall what happened in that respect in the United States in the 1920s and '30s. It's not easy, was it? There was a shooting almost on each street corner. But you have finally managed to get rid of it.

Today I guess the situation with corruption is not as bad as it used to be.

ZAKARIA: Let me give you a theory of why Russia should want to have much better relations with the west than it does now, and tell me if you agree.

Russia's great challenges, as you have outlined, is modernizing its economy. To do that, it needs to have constant interaction and good relations with the centers of modernity in Western Europe and the United States and Japan.

Russia's strategic challenge is a radical, violent Islam and Islamic movements to its south, a complicated, potentially chaotic situation in the Far East, where there will be 30 million Russians and 1 billion Chinese facing each other.

In this circumstance, to have these constant frictions with the west and with the United States does not serve Russia's national interests.

MEDVEDEV (through translator): I agree with you almost completely, with one caveat. Indeed we need to have good developed relations with the west in all senses of the word just precisely because of what you have just mentioned, that there are so many challenges we need to respond to jointly, we need to develop good relations with countries, including those you've just referred to in other parts of the world.

We are living in a multi-polar world which is acknowledged by everybody today, and we count on good relations not only with the western world but also with the other parts of the planet.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ZAKARIA: Here one has to say President Medvedev's comments differ from the analysis of most Russia experts who would feel that Russia has really backtracked significantly with regard to democracy, human rights, press freedoms.

He talked about having a free press, but really that's only true in the area of the print media. Most of Russian television, all of Russian television, really, is now effectively owned or controlled by the Russian government.

He does talk about Russia being a young democracy, which is true, so one can hope that this is part of a maturation process and that eventually Russia will have greater and deeper democracy. But for now, the picture is not, I think, as bright as President Medvedev makes it out to be.

Coming up next, I talk about the fact that he is only 44 years old and wondered what it was like to be president of Russia at that age.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) ZAKARIA: It has often seemed to outsiders that Russia is obsessed with some of these symbols of power -- military weaponry, planting a flag at the North Pole -- rather than really the hard work of modernizing an economy, which is much more complicated and takes a lot more effort.

Why is Russia so obsessed with issues like respect and status?

MEDVEDEV (through translator): I don't think this is all that simple.

But I can tell you one thing. Of course, Russia has its own perception of her role in the world and of her achievements.

Incidentally, I have written about this in my recent article. There were with incidents when Russia had to render assistance to humankind. Only dishonest people can claim that World War II was won by somebody else.

Russia made a decisive contribution to the victory over Nazism. That's clear to every honest observer. So therefore, in a certain manner, it is indeed part of the country's national psyche.

You know, you shouldn't be too excited about that, thinking you are great only on the basis of your previous achievements, like going to outer space or winning this war.

But, on the other hand, this needs to be remembered and shouldn't be underestimated.

At the same time, we should deliver new achievements, which is really the most important thing. It certainly requires the change of a mindset.

ZAKARIA: President Medvedev, I should say happy birthday. It is your 44th birthday. You are the first head of state I'm interviewing who is younger than me.

What does it feel like to be in this position? This is your first elected office. What is the biggest surprise to you about being president of Russia?

MEDVEDEV (through translator): I don't think I will disclose any secret to you by telling you that the work of the president is very interesting but also quite difficult.

It doesn't matter how old you are, 44, or 88, for that matter, it requires you to mobilize your forces.

I'm about the same age as you are, and so you can imagine what emotions in this case you can have. Of course, on the other hand, to get a sense of it and to understand it, you need to really be in these shoes. That's true.

ZAKARIA: Mr. President, thank you very much for agreeing to do this. MEDVEDEV (through translator): Thank you.

ZAKARIA: Thank you.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ZAKARIA: That article that President Medvedev wrote which he mentioned a couple of times in the interview is really worth reading. And I recommend you all do so. It's on our Web site. It's titled "Go Russia." It's really quite a remarkable piece.

I hope this interview has been interesting and has helped you understand Russia a little bit better. I don't know that we'll ever completely understand it. It has always been a difficult country to read.

As always with these kinds of things, Winston Churchill said it best in 1939 in a radio broadcast. He said "I cannot forecast to you the actions of Russia. It is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma." I hope we've unwrapped it a little bit for you.

We'll be back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

FREDRICKA WHITFIELD, CNN ANCHOR: Hello. I'm Fredricka Whitfield in Atlanta. Here are the top stories this hour.

President Obama says his administration has stopped the economic free fall over the last eight months. And he predicts significant job growth will happen in 2010.

But this morning on CNN "State of the Union," he warned more jobs could be lost in the months ahead.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA: I want to be clear that probably the jobs picture is not going to improve considerably, and it could even get a little bit worse, over the next couple of months. And we're probably not going to start seeing enough job creation to deal with the rising population until sometime next year.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

WHITFIELD: Federal agents have arrested three men and the U.S. Justice Department says more arrests are possible as they probe an alleged plot to set off bombs in the U.S.

Najibullah Zazi and his father were taken into custody last night outside Denver. Another man was arrested in queens, New York. The three are charged with making false statements to investigators.

And authorities in Washington State think a criminally insane killer might have planned his escape -- 47-year-old Phillip Arnold Paul walked away from a field trip Thursday in Spokane.

Police say most of his clothing was missing from his room at a mental hospital. They also say he took a backpack and $50 on that outing.

And Florida police are looking for a man whose wife and several young children were found dead. Detectives believe he is in Haiti right now. Authorities found the bodies last night in the family's home in north Naples, Florida.

And those are the headlines. I'm Frederica Whitfield. See you at the top of the hour. Straight ahead, more "Fareed Zakaria GPS."

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ZAKARIA: Now for our "What in the World" segment.

We're staying with Russia. And here's what got my attention this week. The president of Russia announced a new crusade against alcohol, of all things.

Medvedev has called for printed hand-held warning on cans and bottles, criminal charges for those caught selling to minors, and what may be the boldest move of all, he has asked the government to consider setting a minimum price for vodka.

Right now, you can buy a half liter of vodka for about $3.25, a price within the reach of almost all Russians. Now, Russia's justifiably famous for the vodka. Many believe it was invented there, many aficionados claim Russia still makes the best in the world.

I don't know. I don't drink it, but it is killing the Russian people, killing them, in fact, at such an alarming rate that the crisis alcoholism in Russia has the potential to drag the nation down with it.

In recent years, alcohol caused more than 50 percent of the deaths of Russians between 15 and 54 years. That comes from the respected medical journal "The Lancet." This includes everything from liver disease to drunk driving.

In contrast, statistics from the CDC, the Center for Disease Control, indicate that only 3 percent of all American deaths can be linked to alcohol abuse.

Russia's per capita consumption of pure alcohol is five gallons each year. That includes babies and teetotalers. That's twice what the World Health Organization calls the "danger level."

One truly disturbing number -- 40,000 people die in Russia each year of alcohol poisoning, often caused by drinking things like cologne and cleaning fluid just to get the alcohol.

It has been historically political suicide for Russian politicians to tackle the issue. That's how strongly people feel about their freedom to drink heavily. Mikhail Gorbachev may be famous all over the world for ending the Cold War, but in Russia he's also famous for his 1985 anti-booze crusade. He made it illegal to sell alcohol before 2:00 p.m., closed down liquor stores, ordered vineyards destroyed.

It worked. The government crackdown probably saved more than a million lives, or so the government claims. But it made Gorbachev quite unpopular.

After the fall of the Soviet Union, the laws dissolved and drinking shot up to higher levels than before. President Medvedev has called Russia's alcohol problem a national disaster. Deaths from alcohol play a large role in what is the literal dying off of the Russian nation.

In 2005 Russia's population was 143 million. But it is losing 700,000 people a year. The United Nations estimates that by 2030, the Russian population could go as low as 115 million. That's about one fifth of the population gone in 25 years at a time when countries like China, India, and even the United States are growing in population.

Russia has big plans for its future, great economic growth in the next 10, 20 years it hopes, but demographics are destiny. I find it hard to believe that the dying nation can also be a growing nation.

We'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ZAKARIA: Now, our question of the week.

Last week, I told you I didn't think the U.S. and NATO forces should withdraw from Afghanistan but I wanted to know what you thought. Should they stay or should they go?

You were just about evenly split. While the majority said we needed to stay, I was pleased that so many of you saw it fit to disagree with me.

One viewer, Jimmy, said -- "It's nice that you all try to make this pig's ear look like a silk purse, but there is no winning in Afghanistan"

Another, James Hill, wrote "Our national debt is alarming if not terrifying. Continuing this war against militant Islam will destroy our economy. We should withdraw."

Now for this week, I want to know this -- with President Obama's announcement ending the missile program, relations between the U.S. and Russia will probably improve. But can Russia and the United States ever be true allies? And if yes, why? If not, why not? Let me know what you think.

As always, I'd like to recommend a book. This week we've devoted our program to Russia, and so I wanted to recommend a book that will help you learn more, Edward Lucas's "The New Cold War." Lucas uses his vast knowledge of Russia and it's politics to draw a intricate portrait of modern Russia. He delves into all the dark corners, corruption, crime, repression of human rights, militarism, and the hostility toward the west.

The picture he thinks is not pretty, some disagree with it. It's a controversial book, but a very interesting one.

Also, don't forget, we have joined the social networking revolution. If you're on Facebook or twitter, go to CNN.com/gps to see how you can connect with us.

Thanks to all of you for being part of my program this week and I will see you next week.

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