Tougher Russia under Putin

Main goals: Stopping post-Soviet disintegration and making the country's weak economy stronger.

January 05, 2000

RUSSIA'S new ruler, Vladimir Putin, visited combat troops in Chechnya as one of his first acts in office. His message: Russia's disintegration must stop in the Caucasus mountain region.

Look for a far tougher Russia under Mr. Putin. Not only will the former KGB officer be more blunt, but he is likely to be less compromising on issues he deems vital. These may include a harsher attitude toward economic crimes.

At 47, Mr. Putin, a martial arts enthusiast, also will project a far more energetic image than the 68-year-old Boris N. Yeltsin, whose health kept deteriorating during his eight-year presidency.

As Russia's first post-communist leader, Mr. Yeltsin showed a strong commitment to developing a representative form of government. That proved to be an almost impossible task in a country which had never experienced democracy.

In resigning, Mr. Yeltsin guaranteed a smooth succession. But because Mr. Putin became the ruler by a decree, the March 26 presidential vote will be a plebiscite rather than a freewheeling election. This may not seem like a big deal, considering Mr. Putin's overwhelming popularity. But it could lessen his commitment to open debate and accountability.

The all-out war in Chechnya may lead to a deep freeze in Russo-American relations. As fighting has gotten inordinately destructive, the civilian death toll keeps mounting. As for combatants, neither side is taking any prisoners.

The Chechnya war has made the Kremlin extremely wary of Georgia and Azerbaijan, two independent former Soviet republics. Moscow does not like the fact that both of those states, rich in oil and gas, are in talks with U.S. and other Western investors about new pipelines that would bypass Russia. Add to that Georgia's tolerant attitude toward Chechen separatists and its recent talk about joining NATO, and the Russians get fairly apoplectic.

Over the centuries, Russians have shown they can operate on multiple fronts simultaneously; Americans, by contrast, usually are preoccupied only by the crisis of the day. The approaching U.S. election is not a propitious time to take the measure of Mr. Putin; yet it would be a grave mistake for Washington not to keep a careful eye on Russia's new leader.

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