A new leader brings a new day in Russia

Putin: With undisputed power, new president will re-establish strong central government.

March 28, 2000

RUSSIA'S new President Vladimir Putin may be the most exciting world leader today. He is young; he is dynamic. As a former spy and accomplished judo wrestler, he is mysterious. And he controls the world's second biggest nuclear arsenal in a country that dominates much of the Euro-Asian land mass.

As the three-month interregnum ends and the 47-year-old Mr. Putin becomes Russia's undisputed ruler, he will be a frequent traveler to foreign capitals and host to visiting dignitaries in Moscow. His preoccupation, though, will be with trying to straighten out his chaotic country.

Ten years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia has put an end to its disintegration. That's what the bloody and savage war in Chechnya has been all about.

Mr. Putin, who has waged that war with merciless determination, is likely to continue his uncompromising posture. That will mean new toughness with former Soviet republics that are seen as security risks to Russia.

Georgia and Estonia are just two of them. The Kremlin is realistic enough not to tamper with their newly acquired independence -- as long as they recognize Russia's security needs.

At home, too, Mr. Putin is likely to crack the whip. Among his early targets: the regional governors. They have taken advantage of the weakness of the central government during the past decade and become virtual sovereigns.

A case in point is the economically important Primorsky province around the strategic Pacific Ocean naval base of Vladivostok. It has become a center of lawlessness that routinely ignores far-away Moscow. Mr. Putin will change that quickly, using federal funding and appointment powers as his twin hammers.

Dealing with the "oligarchs" will be touchier. When state holdings were privatized, they grabbed the most lucrative ones at fire-sale prices and became billionaires overnight. Today, they not only run much of Russia's legitimate and gray economy but also control the media. Mr. Putin was their favored presidential candidate.

The "oligarchs" are vulnerable: They bleed Russia's economy by avoiding taxes and transferring billions of dollars each year to safe havens abroad. They owe their very existence to co-opted government officials.

Just how Mr. Putin will deal with the "oligarchs" is not clear. But he will not have consolidated power unless he is able to rein them in.

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