A Russian voter's confusion over Putin

It's with confused feelings of optimism and fear that I'll go to the polls in Sunday's Russian presidential elections. There are 11 candidates, but I'll mark the ballot choice "none of the above," if I go to vote at all.

It's a peculiar moment for Russians like me who have perhaps harbored illusions about being a Western-style democracy.

Both my optimism and fear stem from the fact that Acting President Vladimir Putin is going to win.

For me, he's the best in a field of poor choices - and I might even have voted for him if the circumstances were different.

But he's been anointed the next president by the power elite, who control everything from conducting the war in Chechnya to the latest real-estate scheme, and I won't be a part of simply legitimizing their choice.

I don't like it when decisions are just made for me - what difference would my vote make? On the other hand, the certainty of a stronger government under Mr. Putin offers a desirable stability.

Nine years into post-Soviet Russia, the democratic process is a reality, but progress toward a Western-style democracy is an illusion.

Putin was handed the presidency in a quasi-monarchist succession when President Boris Yeltsin stepped down six months early in December, handing the reins to Putin, who'd been prime minister. Because the unexpected change caused presidential elections to be held early, other candidates have had insufficient time to mount serious campaigns against Putin's Kremlin-based advantage.

In the 1996 elections that returned Mr. Yeltsin to the Kremlin for a second term, at least there was the pretense of an electoral struggle as he climbed from single-digit approval ratings to win. But in this election, polls show most of those who are not even voting for Putin still believe his victory Sunday is a done deal.

While the "oligarchs" - Russia's shadowy super-rich power players - and the Kremlin inner circle pull the strings to ensure Putin's advantage, Russians themselves seem to play along.

And perhaps this proclivity is why Putin is the right president for the moment - even in spite of our misgivings.

In our heart of hearts, we're not a republican but a monarchist nation that tends to see its leaders as "good czars" or "bad czars."

The West asks, "Who is Mr. Putin?" But the question in Russian minds is essentially, "What kind of czar is he?"

Like most of my countrymen, I see him as a young and capable leader, who can assure stability and economic growth after Yeltsin's years of nonpolicy, indecisiveness, and frequent erratic behavior.

As a journalist, I'm deeply concerned about Putin's effect on free speech and other civil liberties. His efforts as acting president to establish rigid control over the flow of information, at least in relation to coverage of the war in Chechnya, are evident and alarming. We can only guess how far the Kremlin will go in stifling dissent after Putin receives the electoral mandate.

But here's the trade-off: A country as vast as Russia and with so little democratic tradition does need the "strong state" that Putin has started to build. In the absence of strong civil institutions, strong centralized authority is necessary to make things work.

Whoever would take charge in the Kremlin today would have to make his priority the consolidation of power. The government and its appointees should be in control, not the oligarchs, regional governors, and police chiefs now inseparable from the criminals they are supposed to control.

Without a centralized authority and political will, it's impossible to collect taxes. And Russia's going nowhere if its taxation system isn't brought under control - both in terms of legislation and enforcement. Putin has already shown a strong inclination to collect taxes.

His promised stability may deliver what every businessman - Russian or foreign - dreams of: a government that has reliable regulations that don't change, say, more frequently than every six months. (And that's no exaggeration in our chaotic business environment.)

Yes, Putin is a child of the KGB. His recent interviews reveal that he views the world in black and white - us and them - and has a relentless resolve in dealing with those he sees as enemies. There are certainly flags here to watch for. But if we look more carefully into our past, we can see that the KGB at the end of the Soviet era was a group of people always more pragmatic, better educated, and better informed than Communist Party ideologues. Putin's KGB credentials simply make him the first Russian leader in modern history who was never a party apparatchik.

That he is a former KGB spy does not necessarily mean he's a born enemy of the West. On the contrary, he appears to count on a strong partnership with the West in Russia's global equation.

Despite all my reporter's skepticism about campaign materials, I can't help but agree with the philosophy of Putin's platform: a liberal-conservative synthesis, attempting to combine Russian traditions - like a strong centralized state and paternalistic government - with the achievements of modern global civilization, like democratic capitalism. I don't think anyone - including Putin - has the magic formula yet, but without it, there will be no such thing as a strong, independent Russia operating in the modern world of liberal values.

Several years ago, a colleague from a large American newspaper stopped by my office, plopped into an armchair and sighed, seeking sympathy: "Gosh, I've gotta write another story of how Russia is going to collapse tomorrow!"

I'm sure he did then, as many have since. But Russia has survived worse during its thousand years, and it's not looking at collapse tomorrow.

In the economic crash of 1998, for example, we lost many of our illusions about how a market economy works - which is one of the reasons our economy is now on the rise, however modest, with the first signs of domestic production growth after years of being fed by foreign loans and imports.

Similarly, perhaps if we lose some of our illusions of being a Western-style democracy today, it will ensure a more solid Russian democracy in the future.

*Andrei Zolotov, a former business manager of the Monitor's Moscow bureau, is a staff writer for The Moscow Times.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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