Stepping out of the shadows

Russia: The new acting president is an enigma. But recent actions may signal the direction in which he will lead the nation.

February 13, 2000|By Will Englund | Will Englund,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MOSCOW -- Madeleine K. Albright was sizing up Russia's new president. Who is this 47-year-old man who seemingly came out of nowhere and is now running the Kremlin, the government, the world's second-largest nuclear power?

Vladimir V. Putin has been acting president for a month and, after elections March 26, is highly likely to be settling down for a four-year term. The U.S. secretary of state, in Moscow last week for a meeting on the Middle East, had a meeting with Putin that was scheduled for one hour and ran to three. Albright said she found him to be "a very well-informed person and a good interlocutor, obviously a Russian patriot."

But the question she hasn't answered is this: What is to be expected from a man who was barely known before Boris N. Yeltsin picked him to be prime minister in August?

Putin is something of a blank slate. Russians know that he had a career as a spy in East Germany, and he had a second career as the No. 2 man in the city government of St. Petersburg after the fall of communism. They know that in 1996 he was recruited to a job in the Kremlin and later served a year as director of the Federal Security Service.

They know that he tried to show his human side on television last week,appearing with his dog -- not the Doberman that might have been expected, but a white poodle.

Beyond that, they know that he is young and vigorous, that he projects an image of capability and toughness, and that he has been forcefully prosecuting the war in Chechnya.

But for the rest, there has been room for speculation about a man who has never been tested in the political arena. He's a smart reformer, or he's a puppet of oligarchs; he's an unreconstructed Soviet-era secret police operative, or he's a realist who understands where Russia's interests lie; he's uncomfortable using the gangster jargon that brings him attention, or he's the kind of boss for whom such talk comes naturally.

"Everybody is engaged in psychobabble about him," Albright said. "Everybody ought to watch what he does."

In the six months since Putin came to power as prime minister, several broad themes that help define him have begun to emerge, and the pace has quickened since he ascended to the presidency with Yeltsin's resignation Dec. 31.

His treasury bolstered by the rise in worldwide oil prices, Putin has vastly improved Russia's record on social spending.

The party with which he is associated, Unity, struck a deal with the Communists in parliament over the speaker's post and committee leadership positions -- an abrupt change of course for the Kremlin.

The Federal Security Service, or FSB, is riding high, and there appears to be a new obsession with secret agents and espionage -- both Russian and foreign.

The war in Chechnya grinds on, and the army is prospering.

Here's a broader look at these themes:

Social spending

After the collapse of the ruble in August 1998, the economy stubbornly refused to follow suit, and the weak ruble helped spur production. Oil prices kept going up, and Russia, as an oil-producing nation, reaped the benefits.

This year, for the first time in a decade, welfare programs were financed in full. Putin raised pensions 20 percent as of Feb. 1, and although in real terms they are below where they were before the collapse, the government is paying them on time. Wage arrears, a stubborn problem throughout the 1990s, have been slashed.

Putin has made the right and popular moves. Two difficulties loom: the cost of the war in Chechnya and a likely drop this year in oil prices to $20 a barrel from $28.

Politics

Yeltsin had an unremitting hostility toward the Communists, and much of his success came from outwitting them time after time. The Communist Party, which regularly receives about 30 percent of the votes in elections, has been on the outside looking in since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Putin has changed that. Unity, the party created to support him, struck a power-sharing deal in the Duma, or lower house of parliament, with the Communists. Outraged liberals, who had been busily proclaiming their support for Putin, got nothing -- and walked out.

"To look for logic in the actions of the Kremlin is senseless, because they're absolutely destructive and illogical," Boris Nemtsov, one of the outraged liberals, told the newspaper Obshchaya Gazeta. Yeltsin, he said, would have managed to manipulate the Duma in such a way that his opponents wouldn't even have realized they were being manipulated.

Putin, by contrast, has bluntly alienated members who had hoped to support him.

The "myth" of the acting president's competence as a political leader, Nemtsov said, stemmed from the fact that no one knew him.

"The more we come to understand Putin," he said, "the fewer the illusions."

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