From hard-line nationalists to Western-leaning liberals, just about everyone across Russia's fractious political spectrum is claiming Acting President Vladimir Putin as one of their own. But the available evidence suggests that Mr. Putin is with all, and none of them. He is a man with a mission almost as old as Russian statehood.
He is also apparently in a hurry. Though Putin has granted Boris Yeltsin immunity from prosecution and allowed him to keep an office in the Kremlin following Mr. Yeltsin's sudden resignation on Dec. 31, Putin swiftly fired the former president's daughter and chief imagemaker Tatyana Dyachenko. The move suggests he is impatient to put distance between himself and the corruption-stained, unpopular Yeltsin regime, especially the close circle of Kremlin advisers known as the "Family."
According to the head of Russia's Constitutional Court, Putin may also ask the upper house of parliament to move up presidential elections slated for the end of March. Most analysts agree that the sooner the vote is held, the better Putin's chances of being elected. And the tough-talking former spy needs a direct mandate before he embarks on any sweeping program of change.
The goal of radical Kremlin leaders from Peter the Great to Mikhail Gorbachev was to modernize a backward, sluggish society by absorbing Western technology and managerial methods, but without relinquishing political control. "It will not happen soon, if ever, that Russia will become like the US or Britain, where liberal values have long historic traditions," Putin wrote in his only known political manifesto, published last week on a government Web site (www.pravitelstvo.gov.ru/english/). "For Russia, a strong state is not an anomaly which should be got rid of. Quite the contrary, Russians see it as a source and guarantor of order and the initiator and main driving force of any change."
Putin was schooled as an agent of the Soviet KGB in the 1970s, a time when cynicism and economic stagnation were rotting the Soviet Union's foundations. Analysts say his political mentor was Yuri Andropov, the forward-thinking spymaster who rose to rule the country for nine months in 1982. Mr. Andropov tried to use KGB experts, who understood the country's dire situation better than anyone else, to implement reforms based on tougher workplace discipline as well as imported - often stolen - Western technology and expertise.
'Putin is a man of the Andropov generation, which means he believes in the guiding role of an elite of professional and pragmatic experts who wield state power for the good of the nation," says Vladimir Petukhov, an analyst with the Institute for Social and National Problems in Moscow. "This is the most essential fact about him."
Andropov died before his reforms took hold, but in 1985 Mikhail Gorbachev attempted to continue them. The early years of Mr. Gorbachev's term in power were marked by a draco- nian antidrinking campaign and efforts to "accelerate" industrial production by toughening penalties for laziness and negligence. Mr. Gorbachev soon decided Andropov-style reforms, based on tightening the screws, would not work. He expanded his program to include democratization of society and increased openness in the media.
But many Russians have come to believe that Gorbachev opened the door to anarchy. "Russia has exhausted its limit for political and socio-economic upheavals, cataclysms and radical reforms," Putin writes on the Kremlin Web site. "Every country, Russia included, must find its own path of renewal."
Mr. Putin went on to argue that Russia needs to combine the advantages of democracy and market economics with the country's own state-oriented traditions. "It is a fact that corporative forms of activity have always prevailed over individualism. Paternalistic sentiments have struck deep roots in Russian society."
Less than a week in power, he is already demonstrating how this traditional Russian approach works. In a meeting Jan. 3 with utility executives to deal with the severe energy shortages in some regions, Putin told them to "stop complaining and go out and find the gas for the country immediately." Otherwise, he reminded them, "We can put you in jail."
But the brutal war in Chechnya, which Putin seems determined to win regardless of human cost or criticism from the West, would seem his clearest practical policy statement to date.
"In Chechnya, Putin has shown he is ready to sacrifice thousands of soldiers and tens of thousands of civilians to achieve his political goals," says Andrei Piontkovsky, director of the Centre for Strategic Studies, an independent Moscow think tank.
"That's enough to know about his style to make one very, very alarmed about Russia's future under his rule."
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society