Putin mum on plans for next term

Russian leader hasn't set an agenda, but is likely to win big at polls tomorrow

March 13, 2004|By Douglas M. Birch | Douglas M. Birch,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MOSCOW - A voter from Siberia phoned President Vladimir V. Putin's Moscow campaign in the waning hours of the presidential contest here with a simple query. What would Putin do if he wins a second term?

Good question.

Perhaps because he feels assured of re-election, Putin hasn't bothered to set out his agenda.

The campaign volunteer who answered the phone chided the caller for worrying about such trivial matters. "The main thing is not to declare plans, but to take real action," Vladimir P. Petin, a 67-year-old retired Moscow housing official, declared.

Tens of millions of Russians will head to the polls tomorrow to elect a president - only the third such exercise since the collapse of the Soviet Union. According to the experts and the polls, Putin will win by a whopping margin.

Yet when the Kremlin celebrations are over tomorrow night, the mystery will remain: Where will Putin take this restive, rapidly changing nation in the next four years?

"No one really knows," said Michael McFaul, an expert on Russia with the Hoover Institution and Stanford University. "And don't believe anyone who tells you they do."

This is a defining moment for the former KGB lieutenant colonel and mid-level government bureaucrat who was elevated from obscurity by former President Boris N. Yeltsin.

December's parliamentary elections gave the pro-Putin United Russia party a huge majority in the Duma. His former colleagues from the security services fill the ranks of government. One-time rival power centers - the Federation Council, Russia's upper house of parliament, as well as regional governments - are firmly under Kremlin control.

If he faced constraints in the past, Putin now has a free hand. What the president wants, the president will get.

In the past, Putin has cautiously sought economic liberalization. His administration has promoted the power of Russia's bureaucracy and security services. And the Kremlin has weakened the independence of institutions - the media, courts and opposition political groups, among others - that are the core of any democratic society.

Putin has achieved landmark legal changes, including re-establishing private land ownership for the first time since the Bolsheviks seized power. He revamped the criminal code, reviving the right of trial by jury, and improved conditions in Russian jails.

But police continue to torture prisoners, according to Human Rights Watch, and about a dozen journalists, scientists and environmentalists have been charged with treason in recent years. Government critics are increasingly harassed, detained or imprisoned by authorities.

This so-called "creeping authoritarianism" has had its most drastic impact on the news media. All of the country's major television networks are owned or controlled by the Kremlin. Most give Putin fawning coverage.

In the eyes of reformers, Putin's dedication to a free market is probably his greatest strength. His new government - appointed just five days before the election - includes many economic liberals who may speed Russia's integration into the world economy.

Alexei Kara-Murza, director of Center of Problems of Russian Reformation, said Russia has stagnated under the control of an all-powerful bureaucracy. "What is needed is freedom for the society, and order in the state apparatus," he said. But the Kremlin has sought "order in society and freedom for the bureaucracy."

"The fact is that Putin is a contemporary and modern, pragmatic figure," he said. "And for him it is evident that liberalization of the economy is inevitable. And liberalization of the economy, he should understand, is impossible without the liberalization of policy."

Diversification

Experts say Putin must find a way to diversify Russia's economy from dependence on oil exports. He must also slash its bloated civil service payrolls - the key source of corruption and red tape. And he must figure out how to wean Russians, one-third of whom live in poverty, from their dependence on the state for subsidized housing, food and energy.

In the election, the incumbent faces a half-dozen little-known or poorly financed challengers - one of whom ran to campaign as a surrogate for the incumbent. "You're watching a totally issue-free presidential campaign right now," McFaul said. "And it's not because Putin is so popular. It's because there is no one out there against him."

Putin said he was too busy to campaign and refused to participate in televised debates. But he didn't labor in obscurity in his Kremlin office. Instead, he watched nuclear military exercises from the deck of a submarine, toured model Siberian villages and talked with students at a technical university. These officially nonpolitical events received generous coverage on Russia's networks.

A study by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe found that state-funded television in Russia devoted seven times more air time to Putin in mid-February than all the other candidates combined.

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