Just who is Russia's Putin?

When President Boris Yeltsin a year ago appointed Vladimir Putin as prime minister of the Russian Federation, most people asked: Vladimir who? That question came again on New Year's Eve when Mr. Yeltsin appointed Mr. Putin as acting president. Now the "who" is quite clear.

This athletic man of 47 is the opposite of the bombastic, bibulous, erratic Yeltsin. He began his working life in the KGB, the fearsome, omnipresent Soviet secret police agency, first in counterespionage and latterly as a bureaucrat/spy in East Germany until 1990. His cool, deliberate, poker-face persona was undoubtedly formed in the KGB. His business was facts, and from all accounts, he was moved by a deep, defensive Russian patriotism.

Putin is keenly and publicly aware of his country's lamentable condition. Russia's population, he recently told parliament, is decreasing by an average of 750,000 a year, and could dwindle by 22 million in 15 years. He says that only a strong central government can pull Russia out of its economic and political confusion. His first priority is to concentrate power at the center and eliminate what he calls "groups of influence" that dilute this power.

The president has already reduced the Communist Party to a marginal minority and won control of parliament. Where Yeltsin had given provincial governors a free hand in their sometimes huge fiefdoms to win their support, Putin is legally cutting them off at the knees and asserting presidential authority. Next in line are the so-called oligarchs who amassed enormous wealth as insiders when Yeltsin started privatizing the old Soviet economy. It was like a yard sale for his friends without legal restraint. They are now being called to account; a very popular move, and good for the treasury. The heads of some of the biggest state enterprises - gas, oil, and automobiles - are being questioned about things like tax evasion.

The strong state Putin advocates is, in his words, "unthinkable without respect for human rights and freedoms." And he adds, "Russian democracy will not survive and civil society will not be created without truly free mass media."

But, what does he mean when he says the media shouldn't be "an instrument for fighting the state"?

His big domestic agenda includes economic and legal reform against corruption - toward a free market - and encouragement of foreign investors. It is matched by a very active foreign policy focused on restoring Russia's great-power influences. Putin's tactics are varied and imaginative.

Weeks before his state visit to Beijing, he had done his urgent business with President Jiang Zemin through the back door. They created a five-nation alliance, including Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Kazakhstan, against what they called Islamic terrorism, separatism, and drug trafficking. It is aimed at what is now their common enemy, Afghanistan's Taliban, accused of sending guerrillas into Russia's Caucasian republics of Chechnya and Dagestan, Central Asia, and China's western province, Xinjiang. Putin is mending fences with Russia's "near abroad" neighbors, the now-independent republics of the former Soviet Union.

Sweet reason is in, vitriol is out. Putin has normalized relations with NATO; broadsides against its eastward expansion have about stopped. There's no objection to eastward expansion of the European Union, even to the Baltic States. He has had parliament ratify the strategic arms-control and nuclear-test-ban treaties. His opposition to a possible American missile-defense system is couched in terms that attract support worldwide.

All in all, a virtuoso performance. But what about Chechnya? Is the war a patriotic response to criminal secession, which the Russian public supports, or is it a pitiless resolve to crush dissent? Putin preaches the strong rule of law, which Russia certainly needs. His practice will show whether that leads to democracy or to another dead end.

*Richard C. Hottelet, a longtime foreign correspondent for CBS, writes on world affairs.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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