DAVID GREENE, HOST:
So this is a presidential election year here in the United States, and also in Russia. Their prime minister, Vladimir Putin, is the front-runner. But he's faced the largest anti-government demonstrations seen in that country since the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Against that backdrop, longtime Russia expert Michael McFaul took up his post as the U.S. ambassador to Russia. But the architect of President Obama's reset policy with Russia has been greeted by accusations that he's supporting anti-Putin forces. These are accusations that he denied when we reached him at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow.
MICHAEL MCFAUL: We're not supporting any particular political force or opposition leader. There's been a lot of speculation about that here in the Russian press. And that's just absolute nonsense. We support a process. How they change, when they change, who gets elected president, who doesn't get elected - that's none of our business. That's for Russians to decide.
GREENE: You wrote a book about a decade ago, called "Russia's Unfinished Revolution." You took a look at the country from the Gorbachev era in the '80s up to the Putin era, and the failure of democracy to firmly take root. And I wonder if you could step back, and tell us where we are today. I mean, are these protests in Moscow a sign that Russia is moving toward the finish line?
Well, it was great to be an academic, when I could write books and pontificate about the future. I'm very loathe to talk about predictions of the future. What I would say is that you have seen a period of economic growth, modernization here, in this country, after a very difficult time. Let's remember, you know, when I wrote that book, I talked about the triple transition -of the end of empire, the end of Communism as a political system, and the end of the command economy as an economic system. Doing all three of those things simultaneously was a tremendous challenge, and a great many people suffered as a result of that. But they've come out of it now. This is a prosperous society; this is a very educated society; this is a very sophisticated society. And nobody should be surprised that they are demanding a sophisticated system of government and in turn, a very sophisticated government that's responding to that.
I look at a country like Ukraine. And we saw in 2004 - similar to what we're seeing now, in Russia - protests sparked by what was viewed as a rigged election. The crowds in the square in Kiev - much, much bigger. People got behind, you know, opposition figures who really mobilized, you know, those large crowds. Now, they have a system of government, a leader that is - does not seem as democratic as those who led the Orange Revolution.
Let's say Vladimir Putin wins the election in March, and remains in power in Russia. Where are we in these countries - I mean, in this evolution towards democracy you describe?
MCFAUL: We're, you know, two decades in. I'm not going to give grades about, oh, how democratic or not it is. But most certainly, this system is not the totalitarian dictatorship of the Soviet Union. Let's be very clear about that. Individual rights have progressed far. Choice is greater than it was before - and maybe not as great as it was a decade ago. That's for others to decide, and that's the real point. There is no single path to democracy. And every society, and every government, and every country, will find their own path. And we - as President Obama has said many, many times - we're not going to get into the business of dictating that path. We're just going to support what we like to call universal values - not American values, not Western values; universal values.
GREENE: You made very clear that the U.S. government does not choose the leaders of other countries. I wonder, though, if the United States is perceived in Russia as supporting these anti-Putin protests. If Vladimir Putin wins the presidential election in March, does it makes things complicated when he sits down with President Obama next time?
MCFAUL: Well, "if" is a big word. Let's the Russian people decide who will be their leader. And we look forward to working with whoever is the leader - including the prime minister, should he win the election. We've worked closely with him for the last three years; let's remember that. He's been the prime minister here. We fully expect that there's - in Russia's own national interest to continue to work with us in this cooperative way, and that's the way we intend to proceed.
GREENE: Michael McFaul is a longtime expert on Russia and now, the U.S. ambassador to Russia. And he spoke to us from the U.S. Embassy in Moscow.
Mr. Ambassador, thank you so much for spending the time with us.
MCFAUL: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.