Putin is elected, but uncertainty lingers

Speculation runs wild, but no one can say what the new president will do

News media keeping quiet

March 28, 2000|By Will Englund | Will Englund,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MOSCOW -- After boasting on election night that he had gotten through the campaign without making any promises, President-elect Vladimir V. Putin said yesterday that the government needs to improve Russia's standard of living -- but then quickly caught himself.

Don't expect miracles, he told his countrymen, and don't expect anything soon.

Great flurries of political speculation were wafting across Moscow yesterday, but just as with the snow that has been falling off and on the past few days, nothing has been sticking.

Putin won an easy victory, and still the country knows nothing more about him or his likely new administration than it did a day or a week or a month earlier.

Some said he was sure to form a coalition Cabinet, perhaps with the Communists or with his one-time rival, Yevgeny M. Primakov, a former prime minister and fellow former chief of the Federal Security Service. Others ruled out the idea.

Some said Putin planned sweeping and tough economic reforms; others thought he would move cautiously. The foreign minister said Russia will have a more active foreign policy, but he wouldn't say what it would be.

Putin said he has appointed a group of advisers to develop a program that he will present to the country at the time of his inauguration, six weeks from now.

"The formation of the government will take a lot of time," Boris Gryzlov, head of the pro-Kremlin Unity faction in parliament, said yesterday, as reported by Itar-Tass. "But Vladimir Putin has time."

Even as the Communist speaker of the State Duma, Gennady Seleznyov, said he was pleased by the election results and looking forward to working with the Kremlin, his party's presidential candidate, Gennady Zyuganov, continued to insist that there had been systematic vote fraud in Sunday's balloting.

Zyuganov said his workers would be collecting all the evidence they could find before presenting it. In principle, the suspicion is that powerful local leaders, seeking to curry favor with the incoming administration, found ways to inflate Putin's totals.

Zyuganov concedes that Putin came out ahead, but with less than 50 percent of the total, which should throw the election into a second round. The official results reported yesterday by the election commission gave Putin 52.64 percent to Zyuganov's 29.34 percent, with nine other candidates making up the rest.

Representatives of the 900 European election observers who witnessed the balloting gave the election a lukewarm endorsement. No cases of fraud had been discovered, they reported, but they expressed concern over the fairness of an election carried out amid intimidation of the press and intensive pro-Kremlin coverage by two of Russia's three major television networks.

One of the achievements of Putin's predecessor, Boris N. Yeltsin, was the development of a vocal and unfettered press in Russia, though over time, business interests asserted more and more editorial control over their holdings.

Since Putin has come to power, the government has leaned hard on journalists. The most notorious case was that of a Radio Liberty reporter, Andrei Babitsky. He was detained while trying to cover the war in Chechnya, turned over to a Chechen gang, released and detained again, and faces criminal charges.

Television stations have been forbidden to interview Chechen leaders; an interview with Aslan Maskhadov, the Chechen president, was distorted by nervous editors of the newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda to make him appear to be issuing threats when he wasn't.

Overall, the Russian news media, rather than making a stand for press freedom, have been reverting to an almost Soviet-era form of self-censorship, trying to steer clear of trouble with the Kremlin.

Now that the election campaign is over, an early sign of Putin's predilections could emerge in the days to come. The question is: Will the Yeltsin-era free press try to stage a comeback?

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