Putin's recipe for a strong Russia

The enigmatic leader will seek support for his agenda at next week's Group of Eight summit in Japan.

When Vladimir Putin arrives at the annual summit of the Group of Eight leading industrial country in Okinawa next week, his silent agenda will be a plea for confidence in his sweeping vision of Russia's future, spelled out in a comprehensive State of the Nation address last Saturday.

But it may not prove so easy to embrace Mr. Putin's blueprint. On one hand, it is the most decisively liberal economic plan to appear in Russia since the collapse of the USSR. On the other, it may be a thinly veiled recipe for authoritarian revival in a country that has known little else for a millennium.

"Russian history shows that it is easy to restrict political freedom, but very hard to stimulate economic growth," says Andrei Zakharov, vice president of the Parliamentary Foundation, an independent consultative group to Russia's State Duma. "Whatever Putin says about the need for democracy in the long run, there is no doubt he will gravitate to autocratic measures in the short-term battle for economic results. That is the central paradox of Putinism."

Putin laid out his strategy to reform Russia in a 50-minute State of the Nation address last Saturday, delivered to the combined chambers of parliament.

Though he never once mentioned the name of his predecessor and political mentor, the speech was in effect a harsh repudiation of Boris Yeltsin's heritage.

Putin described a Russia riven with regional discord, weakened by massive capital flight and official corruption, whose population is shrinking by 750,000 citizens annually due to premature deaths and plummeting birthrates.

"He made it clear that Russia will not survive as a strong, integral country unless there are sweeping and sustained reforms," says Leonid Grigoriev, director of the Economic Analysis Bureau, a Kremlin-connected think tank. "He outlined a new economic ideology, one that Russia has never followed before. Its name is freedom."

The six economic guidelines that Putin laid out were commitments to protect private property rights, slash subsidies to unprofitable industries, streamline the cumbersome state bureaucracy, cut taxes and tariffs, reform the banking sector, and end welfare assistance to all but the poorest Russians.

While former President Yeltsin and a parade of his appointees frequently asserted these same principles, in practice little was ever done. "In the past few years we had no reforms at all," says Mr. Grigoriev. "The state drifted amid a sea of chaos. It is Putin's call to action which attracts us."

But analysts point out that Yeltsin's decade of relative inaction was not devoid of logic. "Russia is a very complex, very fragile society," says Alexei Zudin, deputy director of the Center for Political Technologies, a Moscow-based independent think tank. "Cut into it at any point, and there will be instant tension and conflict. Yeltsin was quite canny about avoiding trouble."

Under Yeltsin, the Kremlin sidestepped serious unrest largely by keeping Soviet-era subsidies and social benefits in place, turning a blind eye to rampant official corruption and letting regional leaders go their own way.

Putin has a different answer. Society must be made to swallow the bitter pill of market reform, and the agent that will accomplish this is tough government.

"Only a strong - use the word 'effective' if you don't like strong - only an effective and democratic state is capable of protecting civic, political and economic freedoms," he said.

The Kremlin leader has moved on several fronts in recent weeks. Parliament is considering laws that will strip regional governors of their seats in the upper house and give the president the power to fire them. Russia's top prosecutor has launched criminal investigations of several top businessmen suspected of fraud, tax evasion, or illegally privatizing state property during the lax Yeltsin years.

In his speech, Putin threw down the gauntlet to independent media, which he accused of sometimes "turning into mass misinformation outlets and into a means of struggle against the state."

Not surprisingly, opposition is heating up. Regional governors are digging in their heels and refusing to pass Putin's legislation through the upper house of parliament. Big businessmen, such as the tycoon Boris Berezovsky, are talking about forming their own political party to fight back. And the independent NTV network, whose offices were raided by police this week in what many experts describe as ongoing state harassment for its critical news coverage, has shown no inclination to back down. In a recent TV commentary, the network's deputy head Yevgeny Kiselyev accused Putin of accumulating personal power under the guise of reforming the state.

"It is possible Putin has bitten off more than he can chew," says Yuri Lubchenkov, an analyst with the Moscow-based Development Institute, an independent political consultancy. "He is attacking in several directions at once, and this raises the danger that his opponents might unite."

But the real fear is that the president's campaign might - as has happened so often in Russia's past - surge across the line that divides normal, rule-governed political struggle into the territory where force alone matters.

"It's not that Putin has any evil intentions, it's that Russia's history, unreformed institutions of power, and lack of social controls make antidemocratic behavior a constant danger," Mr. Zudin says. "Putin has clearly signaled that if the logic of liberal market reforms contradicts freedom of speech, then he will be ready to suppress freedom of speech."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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