The world will be watching Sunday as Vladimir Putin is handed the keys to the Kremlin in a glittering ceremony with all Russia's political elite in attendance. The meteoric rise of post-Soviet Russia's second elected president is complete. In his inaugural remarks, the former KGB officer and self-described "state builder" may begin to reveal his agenda for the country he took by storm.
Despite a sputtering civil war in Chechnya, an economic recovery that appears to be running out of steam, and warnings that Russia's fragile press freedoms could be in danger, Mr. Putin has arrived in power with surprisingly little public controversy. Even the March election, which gave him a solid first-round victory, was a lackluster one-horse race.
"People feel the country has been drifting for years, and they are fed up with the endless farewell to Communism," says Sergei Kalmykov, deputy director of the Kremlin-connected Politika Foundation. "Now they hope to see a leader who is decisive, dynamic, pragmatic, and competent. Putin has successfully projected that image."
When Putin steps up to read his oath of office, he will in every way present a sharp contrast with his predecessor and political godfather, Boris Yeltsin. At his inauguration almost four years ago, a pasty-faced, stumbling Mr. Yeltsin barely made it through the specially shortened ceremony.
"Putin's great advantage is that he is not Yeltsin," says Mr. Kalmykov. "He is healthy where Yeltsin was always sick. He is rational where Yeltsin made a fetish out of unpredictable and sometimes exotic behavior. He is conciliatory where Yeltsin was confrontational."
Some experts even suggest Putin is a Russian version of Bill Clinton or Tony Blair, part of the global trend to elect slick, pragmatic, and youthful leaders.
"Putin is in tune with the world, and will mix easily with other leaders," says Grigory Kurtman, a political analyst with the independent Public Opinion Foundation in Moscow. "He is well equipped to move into the mainstream, and will not harp on Russia's different culture and separate destiny the way Yeltsin did."
But Putin's honeymoon may not last long if he does not move swiftly to supplement style with substance, observers say.
"Putin may be the first leader in Russian history who has no ideology, and that's good," says Igor Mintusov, director of Nikola-M, one of Russia's leading political consultancies. "But if it turns out he has no clear plan, that's bad."
As prime minister last year, Putin effectively channelled public rage over a series of bloody terrorist bombings into support for a ruthless military campaign against the separatist republic of Chechnya. Popular support remains high, but the war is dragging on and the Kremlin has yet to reveal its exit strategy. "In Chechnya, Putin demonstrated political will and decisiveness, and that impressed Russians," says Kalmykov. "But you cannot end a war the way you start one. Another set of qualities has to be displayed, and we don't know if he has them."
According to Kremlin figures, Russia's economy is currently expanding at a bubbly annual rate of 7 percent, a startling switch from the negative-growth 1990s. Putin has said Russia needs to maintain that head of steam for at least a decade, in order to overcome its post-Soviet depression.
But hints of his long-term economic strategy that have leaked out from the presidential think tank and other sources suggest a baffling mix of state intervention, protectionism, and free-market reform. Even some of the country's top political observers are confused. "If you ask me to define Putin based on what I know today, I guess I would say he is a liberal statist," says Mr. Mintusov. "But I know that sounds like a contradiction in terms."
Some happenings on Putin's watch so far raise questions about whether the ex-KGB agent's professed commitments to democracy and human rights are genuine. These include the massive use of force against Chechen civilians during the seven-month war, the apparent kidnapping by Russian security forces of journalist Andrei Babitsky last January, and increasingly frequent "warnings" by Russia's press ministry to newspapers that deviate from the government line on Chechnya.
"Putin sees his task as consolidating Russian society, and has promised that the emphasis will be on order," says Mr. Kurtman, of Public Opinion Foundation. "We have to wonder about that, and we can only hope that this will not be accompanied by a loss of freedom, particularly press freedom."
When the curtain rises in the Kremlin this weekend, Russia will move officially into the Putin era and the answers will begin to flow.
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