By making one of his first moves as acting president a visit with Russian troops in Chechnya, Vladimir Putin has signaled what his political strategy will be to stay in power - and how he might rule a nation that is going through one of the most important transitions in today's world.
The Chechen jaunt was clearly a clever public-relations move. The war has sent Mr. Putin's ratings soaring, accounting for why Boris Yeltsin named the prime minister as his heir apparent in a surprise move on New Year's Eve, stepping down well before his term was over - a novelty in Russian history.
But the battlefront trip also shows where Putin's priorities lie. He is a grim product of the security forces, a former head of the Federal Security Services (FSB), the successor to the KGB. The lean man in dark suits often speaks of his appreciation for order, and analysts say that Russians can now expect a heavier hand at the helm.
Indeed, parallels are often drawn between Putin and Gen. Augusto Pinochet, the former Chilean dictator who blended authoritarianism with Western-style liberal economics.
"Putin would probably tighten the screws," says Andrei Piontkovsky, the director of the Moscow-based independent think tank, Centre for Strategic Studies.
But for many citizens of this former superpower, that's exactly what is needed. Russia's decline since the 1991 Soviet collapse has been a source of shame. The country has lost much of its international influence, and the potentially wealthy economy has disintegrated to third-world levels.
Many Russians blame their nation's fall from grace on Mr. Yeltsin, who in the final years of his nine-year reign made several strategic mistakes due to illness and policy blunders.
While Putin offers an iron-man alternative, many analysts question the wisdom of choosing a professional spy untested with governance to run the world's largest country. They say that Putin's meteoric rise from obscurity to become an intimate of the president was largely due to Yeltsin's perception that Putin would protect him and his entourage, widely known in Russia as the Family, once they left power.
"The Family decided that from the point of view of its long-term interest, it would be better for Yeltsin to resign now, and pass the power to Putin to ensure the family's safety," Mr. Piontkovsky says.
Hours after being named acting president, Putin signed a decree granting his predecessor immunity from interrogation, arrest, and prosecution. It also provides him a lifetime pension, a country house, and bodyguards.
Under Yeltsin's stewardship, corruption continued to flourish. And despite continual pressure from the West, his government was never able to stamp it out. This will undoubtedly be the biggest task Putin faces.
Analysts say Putin will most likely win the March elections, set by the Constitution, unless there is a disastrous setback in the Chechen war. What happens after that is unclear.
Up to now, Putin's prime accomplishment is the engineering of the war in Chechnya. But he lists as his priorities completing the transition to a free market economy and building a stronger state. The latter, he says, requires strengthening the executive, more discipline, and fighting corruption.
Analysts expect him to follow a semi-authoritarian rule in combination with liberal economic changes. Putin is good friends with generals as well as the country's young economic reformers such as Anatoly Chubais, the mastermind of the country's privatization program. And Putin might turn out to be the first leader to develop a long-term strategy for Russia's economic development. Already as prime minister, Putin commissioned a scientific center to draw up scenarios for a 10-year economic plan.
"What we are witnessing in Russia now is a transformation to a more traditional Russian government. Not communist, but more going back to the tsarist period. I would expect it to be a stronger government," former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger said Friday. "I think conditions in Russia will be chaotic for a while. Once a central authority is reestablished and a legal system is put into place ... then the Russian economy with recover fairly rapidly."
Putin will have an easier time than Yeltsin getting economic changes passed in the Duma, where the Communists lost their dominance in Dec. 19 elections. But this does not necessarily mean that a new government will be able to overhaul the banking and tax system and tackle the corruption that besets economic development and disturbs Western creditors. Corruption is endemic in politics, and it would require a man willing to eliminate powerful people to grapple with it.
Western analysts say the jury is out on whether Putin will usher in chillier relationships with the West. He favors words like "patriotism" and "national pride," which appeal to ultranationalists nostalgic of past Soviet might.
And he has shown himself indifferent to criticism over reports of abuses against civilians in Chechnya from Western leaders. He has labeled foreign news media that have reported on these abuses and government defeats as propagandists.
But this could just be rhetoric, and all signs are that he is going to pursue the issue of arms control that Yeltsin endorsed but had trouble passing through the Duma.
"The main danger for Russia is the weakness of its democratic institutions and civil society. It is these institutions that are to be the counterweight of state power," says Alexei Kara-Murza, director of the Center for Russian Reformism, an independent think tank in Moscow.
"We'll see if Putin will be a good guarantor for the development of democracy. The main test will be his attitude toward criticism of the government. If Putin passes the test, it will mean that Yeltsin's choice was right and good."
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society