Putin after a year at the helm

Russian president touts stability, national pride. Tackling corruption is also key.

Standing over Sergei Stepashin's luxurious, polished-wood desk is an unlikely icon in post-Soviet Russia: a two-foot-tall statue of Justice, blindfolded and holding her scales aloft.

The statuette is not only for show. As the country's top auditor and a chief official in charge of rooting out corruption, Mr. Stapashin plays a key role in implementing President Vladimir Putin's vision of revitalizing the primacy of the state in Russian lives, and restoring the dignity of the country.

It's a goal that critics say has come at the expense human rights, democracy, and media freedoms.

Yet despite a string of disasters and the seemingly intractable war in Chechnya, Mr. Putin remains overwhelmingly popular at home. With no weighty political opponents in sight, his approval rating stands above 70 percent.

One year after taking the reins of power - when often-unpredictable and health-troubled former President Boris Yeltsin made way for his dour but dynamic chosen heir by stepping down on Dec. 31 - Mr. Putin is making good on promises to reverse Russia's decline by creating a "dictatorship of law."

"What not so long ago appeared almost impossible has become a reality in our lives," Putin said in a New Year's Eve address. "Notable elements of stability have appeared, and this means a great deal for politics, economics, and for all of us."

The president is striking a chord among Russians tired of post-Soviet chaos and arbitrary rule. For the second year running he far outpolled any other Russian in a local "Hero of the Year" contest. But while the former KGB agent has tightened his grip on power, it is those like Stepashin, as head of the reenergized Audit Chamber, who are wrestling behind-the-scenes to control the Russian leviathan. "Corruption is limitless," says Stepashin, a former prime minister (under Mr. Yeltsin) and intelligence chief, who today runs Russia's equivalent of the US watchdog agency, the General Accounting Office. Yeltsin never once issued an order to the chamber, Stepashin says. But Putin has made it a key instrument of his reforms and his obsession with order.

The Audit Chamber has uncovered extensive diversion of federal funds meant to rebuild the republic of Chechnya, where Russian forces are fighting a ruthless war against Islamic separatists. And it is working to make the selloff of state assets fair and transparent - a break from past practices, which netted the state little cash while allowing a few well-connected individuals, dubbed "oligarchs," to amass vast holdings in the media, energy, and banking sectors.

"It's not only political force behind us, but the law," Stepashin says. "Those who create obstacles to our checks violate the law, and must be punished."

Political absolutism is nothing new to Russia, though some say Putin is more interested in establishing dictatorship than enforcing law. Powerful regional governors have been undermined, and a new system of vertical power, answerable to the president, is now in force.

The once-combative Duma, or lower house of Parliament, has danced to Putin's tune on everything from ratifying START II nuclear arms cutbacks to considering limits on the number of political parties. Former KGB and security officials now occupy high offices.

Putin's quest to reestablish an all-powerful, efficient state is a well-worn path in Russia. During an effort to Westernize at the turn of the 18th century, Czar Peter the Great famously declared police are "the soul of citizenship and all good order."

Even hard Soviet times are remembered fondly by some, for their firm order and control. Historians such as American Hugh Ragsdale note that the state here has always been seen as the "unique agency of progress, strength, and society."

In this light, symbols are playing a key role. On New Year's Eve, when Putin approved by decree the controversial former Stalin-era tune as the new national anthem, the first line of the rewritten lyrics read: "Russia, our sacred state...."

Russian TV quoted Putin as saying the anthem shows "that we have finally managed to bridge the disparity between past and present."

Such optimism may be all the more surprising, considering the string of tragedies that befell Russia in 2000.

The sinking in August of the Kursk - Russia's largest and most-modern nuclear submarine - underlined a once-superpower military in collapse. Putin was sharply criticized for his handling of the disaster, but emerged relatively unscathed from others.

These include a bombing in a crowded Moscow underpass and a fire that destroyed a television broadcast tower, darkening TV screens for days. Putin's tough stance on the Chechen conflict enjoys strong support, according to recent opinion polls. His wife, Lyudmilla, told the daily Komsomolskaya Pravda, "We used to say: 'We're proud to be Soviet. This year in Russia ... people are thinking again: 'It's great to be Russian.' "

Still, Putin remains almost as much of an enigma as when he first assumed power, before being confirmed as president in a March election. "The question 'Who is Mr. Putin?' is still real," says Vladimir Andreyenkov, head of the Institute for Comparative Social Research in Moscow. "Nobody knows for sure where he will lead the country."

High prices for Russian oil exports have buoyed a stagnant economy, giving Putin some breathing space. But any failure of reforms, Mr. Andreyenkov warns, would lead to "extraordinary measures" and "might be a road to dictatorship."

Putin appears to reject that analysis. "The state always tries to create the most favorable conditions for itself and tries to forbid everything," he told Canadian journalists in the Kremlin last month, ahead of a visit to Canada. "I assure you that there is no danger that the structure of democratic society ... could be dismantled," he said. "When we speak of the strengthening of the state, we don't mean the curtailment of democratic institutions."

Some analysts argue that Putin tries to be all things to all people, that his political views are pragmatic - and therefore changeable and uncertain. "There exists an objective necessity to create a hierarchy of power in Russia, and to some extent that means restricting the unlimited possibilities that now exist," says Ilya Lepikov, a columnist with the English-language Russian Journal. "But there won't be any resistance to these limitations," she says. "People are so tired of the total lack of order in the country ... that it is much easier to restore order now than ever before."

For the workhorses of change such as Stepashin, the complex, sometimes overwhelming task of rooting out corruption is the foundation for order. "We should be very sorry and we, especially our past president, should apologize to our foreign partners for the last 10 years," Stepashin says. Putin has already taken the first steps by curtailing the influence of Russia's oligarchs, he says. "It should be more tough [than the past], but more transparent."

The Audit Chamber is still not as independent as it should be, says Andreyenkov, of the research institute. "The problem in Russia is that there is no legal consciousness among top officials," he says. "They might promise not to change oil taxes, for example, and then immediately change them. Only when this change happens will we have effective bodies of control."

Stepashin is aware of the problem, and the historical difficulty here of making decisive promises. But he insists the political will to reshape the state, however imperfect, is there. He would like to make his Lady Justice, in fact, "not be blind."

"Nikita Kruschev promised to free the last criminal from prison in 1980. Mikhail Gorbachev promised to provide every Soviet family an apartment by the year 2000," he says. "That's why I say that there has been, is, and will always be corruption until there are no more than two people left alive.

"But the scale of corruption, and its spread among the power structure, that's what we must strike against."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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