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Putin: Russia's 'Mr. Stability'

In Wednesday's state-of-the-nation speech, the Russian president pledged to stay the course with modest reforms.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / May 27, 2004



MOSCOW

Tax reform. Better healthcare and education. And a promise from Russian President Vladimir Putin that, after a decade of post-Soviet chaos and four years of his benevolent rule, Russia has now crossed a threshold to a stability that will double the economy and incomes by 2010.

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With little emotion, Mr. Putin Wednesday used his first state-of-the-nation speech since a March landslide reelection victory to announce new long-term aims. But among Putin's modest pledges for affordable housing and new oil pipelines, analysts expressed concern about what Putin did not say.

"I did not hear anything significant about political reforms, the media, regional problems, or building a professional army - as if everything was OK in those fields," says Maxim Glikin, political editor of Moscow's Nezavisimaya Gazeta daily newspaper. "The message is: I'm victorious, and everything is under my control."

Widely popular among Russians tired of the uncertainties of the 1990s, Putin is beginning his second term on the wave of a 7.3 percent economic growth last year, and backed by a pro-Kremlin parliament elected last December.

Putin monuments, anyone?

Poll numbers from late April show Putin's approval rating at a stratospheric 79 percent. Poll results released Wednesday by the Levada Center found that 1 in 10 Russians would support or not object to erecting a monument to Putin in their hometown.

"The highest level of trust for Putin is explained by the fact that people have nobody else to trust," said pollster Yury Lavada, as quoted in Izvestia newspaper Wednesday.

Such political control has not been so concentrated in Moscow since the Soviet era.

But the Russian leader pressed all the right rhetorical buttons Wednesday, declaring his support for individual freedoms and democracy, and for rebuilding Russia's historic power.

"It depends on us today, whether we are capable of becoming a society of truly free people," Putin told both houses of parliament.

"Not everybody in the world wants to deal with an independent, strong, and confident Russia," Putin said. "Strengthening of our statehood is sometimes deliberately interpreted as authoritarianism. I would like to declare that there will be no review of fundamental principles of our policies."

Indeed, key issues looming over Putin's second term received only tangential treatment, including Kremlin ties to powerful oligarchs who became fabulously wealthy from the sell-off of state assets in the 1990s, and the ongoing crisis in Chechnya, where the Moscow-backed president was killed by rebels in a May 9 explosion.

"Chechnya is unsolvable, so you can't give it a lot of emphasis," says Lilia Shevtsova, a political analyst at the Moscow Carnegie Center. Instead, the speech had softer tones "to demonstrate Putin as everybody's man ... [that he can be] all things to all people."

For some observers, expectations had been higher for a president with unrivaled power in the post-Soviet era, especially during his final four-year term in office.

Silence on the oligarchy

Russian Axis, a recently created think tank in London, predicted Monday that Putin would use the speech to launch a "systematic strategy" to weaken the oligarchs' grip and redress the economic "imbalance of power." The group noted that just 23 individuals or groups control more than one-third of the Russian economy and asserted that the Kremlin sees "mounting evidence that oligarchic capitalism is a severe threat to Russia's economic and political authority."

Putin picked no such fight. But he did make clear that - with one in five of Russia's 145 million people in poverty, according to official figures - the "reference point" for decisions will be "state tasks, and not the interests of separate companies."

Regarding natural resources - the province of most Russian oligarchs, who have made Moscow home to more billionaires than any other city in the world, according to Forbes magazine - Putin said that "clear, spelled out rights and responsibilities" of the state and of entrepreneurs is necessary.

Speculation of an attack on oligarchs has been bolstered by the October arrest of Russia's richest man, Yukos oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who some analysts believe violated an unwritten Kremlin pact with the oligarchs forged early in Putin's presidency, that would keep them - and their money - out of politics.

In recent years, several oligarchs have been forced into exile or live outside Russia. Mr. Khordorkovsky's case is one of several high-profile arrests since last year; preliminary hearings on fraud and embezzlement charges are due to begin Friday.

"There is an overwhelming weight of circumstantial evidence for the whole Khodorkovsky affair - namely that he was perceived to violate the rules of the game that existed," says Christopher Granville, chief strategist for the United Financial Group.

The aim of the arrest "is precisely to maintain the existing rules of the game," says Mr. Granville. "[Putin] is Mr. Stability, it's what he prides himself on, not revolutionary projects."

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