Russia's new, hands-on leader

Vladimir Putin won 52 percent of the vote. He's now poised to enact his agenda to get Russia back on its feet.

No one ever doubted that Vladimir Putin would be Russia's next president. But with a convincing first-round victory under his belt in Russia's second post-Soviet elections, the tough-talking former KGB agent is poised to immediately start enacting his agenda to get Russia back on its feet.

The problem is, he has not yet said exactly what his strategy is.

Analysts say the Putin era may get off the ground slowly, but will likely be very different from the drift and ad hoc policymaking that characterized the nine-year Kremlin reign of Boris Yeltsin.

Russia's Constitution vests enormous powers in the presidency, but Mr. Yeltsin rarely seemed interested in the nuts-and-bolts of government. "Putin is a young, vigorous, hands-on kind of leader," says Yury Igritsky, an analyst with the Institute of Social Studies in Moscow. "He can be expected to want to exercise all that authority he has inherited."

Mr. Putin took about 52 percent of the popular vote in Sunday's presidential election, the biggest such victory since ex-President Yeltsin rode into president's office with 56 percent in 1991. The Communist challenger, Gennady Zyuganov, did unexpectedly well by taking nearly a third of the votes. Liberal Grigory Yavlinsky got about 6 percent, and ultranationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky, in his worst showing ever, about 3 percent.

"Russia is still an unformed democracy, and so you mustn't look at this as though it were a Western-style winner-take-all contest," says Irina Zvigelskaya, an analyst with the independent Center for Political Studies in Moscow. "In fact, Putin will have to tread very carefully because the voting shows that Russia is still a very divided society. Half the people supported Putin, but half were against him."

Judging by his own pre-election pledges Putin's main tasks will be to create economic dynamism after nearly 10 years of depression, reduce the crushing poverty that afflicts one-third of Russia's population, find a political exit from the bloody war in Chechnya, restore central authority by curbing the runaway powers of local governors, crush the corrupt oligarchs who control much of the country's wealth-making sources, and revive Moscow's waning prestige on the world stage.

One school of thought among analysts is that Putin will attempt to accomplish these aims through a traditional Russian revolution-from-above, by using the power of the state and its security apparatus to impose policies without regard for civil liberties or democratic process.

In Putin's words

The new president has provided plenty of fuel for these speculations. In his pre-election booklet, "In the First Person: Conversations with Vladimir Putin," he praises the history of the Soviet secret police, labels as a "traitor" his former colleague ex-KGB general Oleg Kalugin (who has never been charged with any crime), and muses about the need for a "dictatorship of law" in Russia. He has also committed deeds that leave liberals aghast.

"Putin is the man who started the war in Chechnya, who paved his way to power over the bodies of thousands of Russian soldiers and Chechen civilians," says Andrei Piontkovsky, director of the Center for Strategic Studies. "Why does anyone think he will stop using indiscriminate force now?"

Authoritarian steps

Among the steps that might indicate Putin is heading down an authoritarian road would be fresh strictures on the already beleaguered free media, extra-legal moves to subordinate the elected governors of Russia's 89 regions to Kremlin fiat, and use of the security police rather than courts to deal with the country's vast gray economy.

"There is definitely a potential threat of drifting into dictatorship with Putin," says Leonid Radzikhovsky, a political expert with the daily Segodnya newspaper. "This is partly because of his previous place of work, the KGB, where he was not schooled in the best democratic values. It is also because Russia has no developed civil society capable of resisting pressure from above. The temptation to move quickly, using force methods, is always present within our system."

Many other analysts say Putin may be planning tough measures to deal with Russia's decade-old economic and social crisis, but that he knows better than to try to operate outside the law. The new president - a law-school graduate - has also said much to encourage this school of thought, insisting that he supports the inviolability of private property and individual liberties, calling for an end to government privileges for the oligarchs and advocating an "equal playing field" for all economic players.

"Putin is not a symbol of revolution," says Mr. Igritsky. "The country gave him a mandate to restore order with a strong hand, but that does not mean dictatorship. He is smart, and he understands that democracy is a much more effective lever of power than authoritarianism."

Even if his intentions are the best, however, Putin may be drawn to take harsher measures by force of circumstance. The six-month-old war in Chechnya, intended to be brief and decisive, shows every sign of flaring into a protracted guerrilla conflict that could sap Russia's economic lifeblood and explode the pro-Putin electoral consensus.

If Putin tries to move against the country's entrenched oligarchs, he may resort to cracking down on Russia's non-state media - which is largely owned by a handful of economic kingpins.

"The struggle against the regal privileges of the oligarchs will inevitably be messy," says Alexander Bevz, president of the Civil Society Foundation, a private think tank. He says that if Putin wants to force the tycoons to end their asset-stripping ways and begin investing to create jobs and production in Russia, he will have to declare war on them. "The oligarchs have their supporters entrenched in government and in the media, and they will not yield easily."

Reckoning with the West

Improving relations with the West, another Putin agenda item, could also be derailed by factors beyond his control.

"The longer the war in Chechnya goes on, the greater will be the damage to East-West understanding," says Mr. Igritsky.

Putin's pledge to revive Russia's stagnant military-industrial complex through big increases in the defense budget, could have a similar effect.

"I do not think Putin is a neo-imperialist, but he is quite adamant about restoring Russia's great-power status," says Mr. Bevz.

The new president has promised to be cooperative on arms control and friendly to foreign investment, but he has signed a national security doctrine affirming Russia's right to first use of nuclear weapons and has amplified Yeltsin-era talk about strengthening Russia's strategic cooperation with India and China to counter US "hegemony" in world affairs.

"In the months ahead, Putin will make choices that clearly define Russia's future," says Ms. Zvigelskaya. "The evidence of his intentions right now is mixed, and there are some serious storm warnings ahead."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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