Putin as Pinochet

Authoritarian efficiency: Kremlin sees Chile's economic miracle under dictatorship a model to copy.

January 01, 2001

EVER SINCE the Soviet Union collapsed nine years ago, Russians have wondered whether their country is ready for Western-style democracy. President Vladimir Putin has an answer: He is edging Russia toward an authoritarian setup that, by design, resembles Chile under dictator Augusto Pinochet.

In recent days, President Putin has taken steps to restrict organized political activity to those parties most favorable to him. Meanwhile, he continues efforts to strip regional governors of their considerable powers and muzzle independent media outlets.

Among Western liberals, Augusto Pinochet's 16-year dictatorship in Chile is largely remembered for gross human rights violations, including the liquidation of more than 3,000 of the most vocal government critics.

Russian political scientists, though, see the harsh Pinochet rule as a necessary transition period that ended economic chaos and paved the way for Chile to become the most open, stable and liberalized economy in Latin America. They found the Pinochet model so intriguing that they recommended it to Mikhail S. Gorbachev. The latter, however, opted for democratization that led to the unraveling of the Soviet Union.

The election of George W. Bush elated Kremlin advisers, who expect more pragmatism from the White House and less rhetoric about human rights.

"The Republicans are seen as pragmatic people with whom the Kremlin can deal," Pavel Felgenhauer wrote in the Moscow Times recently.

"Older Russian leaders, like Yegveny Primakov, are apparently hoping to relive the good old days of Richard Nixon -- the time of realpolitik. They believe that a deal can be cut with the new Bush administration delineating spheres of interest and stating that inside its own sphere the Kremlin will be given virtually a free hand to do anything: plunder Chechnya, control the press, falsify election results and so on."

According to Mr. Felgenhauer, some Putin advisers think that the Bush administration will tolerate an authoritarian leader in the Kremlin as long as pursues pro-capitalist economic policies and does not needlessly antagonize the West.

This kind of speculation is certain to increase in the new year. With President Putin officially on vacation for the next two weeks, a now-familiar pattern is likely to re-emerge: Incidents will happen in Russia that he can claim he knows nothing about. This means that all kinds of trial balloons will be launched. Some risky domestic decisions also may be announced. If they cause an uproar, Mr. Putin can always cancel them once he returns.

The new Bush foreign policy team should pay close attention to the maneuvering that is taking place in Moscow. More than Mr. Putin's occasional pale smile, his actions show what kind of man they will soon be dealing with.

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