Putin's leadership depends on measured use of power

Corruption and fears inspire hold on authority as U.S. seeks alliance

May 24, 2002|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MOSCOW - Two years after Vladimir V. Putin became president of Russia, many Westerners still regard him as an enigma. They can't decide if he is a reformer trying to open his nation up to the West or an autocrat bent on amassing power in his own hands.

The answer? He is both.

Putin is dragging Russia - muttering and grumbling - into 21st-century Europe. He has forged a strategic partnership with his nation's archrival, the United States. He has tamed the country's immensely influential oligarchs. And he has been able to do it all because he has restored much of the Kremlin's former power, diminished by the breakup of the Soviet empire.

Last night, President George W. Bush arrived in Moscow for a series of meetings with Putin in which the two leaders are expected to sign an agreement reducing nuclear arsenals, talk about trade and try to cement the alliance that began after the terror attacks of Sept. 11 in the United States.

With the United States focused on its war against terror, progress toward a more democratic Russia might not rank as a major White House worry. But, many political observers believe, no factor will have more influence on long-term relations between the two countries.

"The alliance can't be durable, or effective or productive" as long as Russia remains an autocratic state, said Lilia Shevtsova, a political scientist with the Moscow Carnegie Center. "It has the seeds of mutual frustration."

Putin is not Russia's first authoritarian reformer, Shevtsova points out. That was Peter the Great, who in the early 18th century almost single-handedly built what was then a modern empire out of an isolated nation beyond the frontiers of Europe.

Putin, an obscure bureaucrat just five years ago, is an unlikely successor to the legendary czar. But the 49-year-old former KGB officer has plans for his country that are just as ambitious.

Strong actions

He has nearly completed the task of dismantling the old Soviet economy, tossed out a host of rogue regional officials and has begun to grapple with Russia's mammoth, corrupt bureaucracy. His administration reformed the labor code and customs rules, and re-established private property rights after 80 years.

After the terror attacks Sept. 11, he shocked many Russians by agreeing to let the United States station troops in the former Soviet republics.

But the questions remain: What does Putin want? Is his aim to build a stronger and more democratic Russia - or just a more prosperous, stronger Russia?

That depends, many Russian intellectuals say, on what is meant by democracy.

Russia today holds elections with more than one candidate on the ballot - a big improvement over Soviet times.

But in Western societies, democracy means more than that. Government power is divided among competing groups - it is split among state capitals and city halls, prosecutors' offices and judges' chambers, the houses of Congress and the White House.

This competition keeps any group or individual from monopolizing power, and threatening individual rights. By this measure, Russia is becoming less democratic under Putin.

"The state's power is monolithic," Shevtsova said. "It's in the hands of one person. The rest of the state's institutions represent a kind of Potemkin village."

This is not what everyone expected from Putin. From the start, he talked about strengthening the state's commitment to democratic rights.

"The freedom of speech, the freedom of worship, the freedom of press, the property rights - these fundamental elements of civilized society - will be reliably protected by the state," Putin pledged on Dec. 31, 1999, the day he became acting president.

But Putin has proved an unreliable champion of most of these freedoms. His allies this year forced the closure of the only television networks independent of Kremlin control. Military and state officials have harassed journalists reporting on the kidnappings, torture and killings committed by Russian troops in the country's war against rebels in the breakaway republic of Chechnya.

Authorities prosecuted a scientist for spying after he wrote an article summarizing material available in libraries. The government, closely tied to the quasi-official Russian Orthodox Church, interferes with the work of other religions.

`He has disappointed'

At first Putin seemed "too smart, too young and too Western" to betray the democratic ideals of Russia's anti-communist revolution, wrote Michael McFaul, a Stanford University political scientist, in the Moscow Times in January this year. "He has disappointed," McFaul wrote. "Though still too early to make final judgments, the accumulation of anti-democratic acts has become too great to ignore."

Russian intellectuals tend to be more forgiving.

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