Russia's Acting President Vladimir Putin, seeking election on March 26 to a full four-year term, has what must be the strangest campaign slogan of the year. As reported by his press spokesman, it is: "Follow me. We will sort things out later."
And the funny thing is that the Russians - by a majority of more than 60 percent - seem willing to follow him, with little idea of what he plans to do, if, indeed, he himself knows. His Army is bogged down in Chechnya, yet that does not seem to detract from his popularity.
He pulled a fast one last month that shocked a lot of people when he made an alliance with the Communists to give him control of the Duma, the parliament. How could he? Because he doesn't seem to share the deep hatred of communism of his sponsor, Boris Yeltsin, and because he saw this pact with the devil as a way to consolidate power.
Power seems to be what this KGB-trained politician is about. That doesn't mean, say scholars whom I respect, that he will turn back to communism. He knows there is no going back. Russians have come to like the idea of freedom and personal property, however imperfectly enforced. It apparently does mean that he seeks more authoritative, if not authoritarian, rule - the strong hand that Russians appreciate.
In recent weeks, Mr. Putin has signed legislation giving security agencies increased power to monitor e-mail. He has a committee working on regulation of press coverage of the war in Chechnya. An accreditation plan for reporters, Russian and foreign, is in the works. Putin wants to screen from the world the carnage that is Chechnya.
One can perceive Putin's tactics but not his strategy.
Masha Lipman, a very able Russian journalist, has written in The Washington Post that Putin's deal with the Communists in the Duma is a "nauseating sell-out of reformers," and that Putin believes in nothing "except smooth governance for the sake of goals that are not quite clear even to him."
And yet, veteran reformer and former acting Prime Minister Yegor Gaidar, who was in Washington the other day, told me that he has hope that Putin will pursue reform once the election is over.
Putin is certainly doing a good job of keeping them guessing about his plans. Assuming, that is, that he has large plans.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society