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Russia: Prime Minister Putin Takes Steps To Bolster Image

  • Sophie Lambroschini

A difficult task lies ahead for Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin as he looks toward parliamentary and presidential elections. To achieve political success, he needs to be seen as scoring a clean victory in Chechnya. Putin took two major steps this week to increase his chances of popular support: he asserted control over official information on the Chechen conflict, and he promised the military much more money. Our correspondent in Moscow, Sophie Lambroschini, reports.

Moscow, 8 October 1999 (RFE/RL) -- These days, rumors about the possible dismissal of Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin are as common in Moscow as bomb scares. So if there's one mistake this head of government can't afford in an election year, it's a botched military operation.

For the moment, Russian authorities are portraying the conflict in breakaway Chechnya as a string of Russian successes -- victorious advances deep into Chechnya and virtually no casualties.

To maintain this image of a painless victory, Putin is pursuing a strategy he has called "consolidation" -- of public opinion and of the military. This week, Putin made public two tactics that should help him stay on top of the situation in Chechnya: controlling the flow of official news about actions there, and courting the military with a big budget increase.

Putin inaugurated an "information center" yesterday that will replace the multiple official sources of information about military activities. The idea is that the Interior and Defense ministries will channel all information about "hot spots" through this single outlet. This way, all the relevant ministries will sing, in the words of Interior Minister Vladimir Rushailo, "in one objective key."

Over the past weeks of the conflict, different official sources sometimes gave differing versions of events, which made the government sound untrustworthy.

Even so, media coverage has tended to present the government line quite well. Television images of the northern part of Chechnya, which Russian troops entered this week, show smiling soldiers sitting on their tanks and smoking cigarettes. The Russian Defense Ministry maintains that just four soldiers were killed and no heavy fighting took place during the Russian offensive.

This account is contradicted by Chechen sources. But those sources are mostly ignored by the media, which have been promoting anti-Chechen views.

Consequently, Putin's image among the public is that of a man who can get the job done. Both news commentators and politicians have called him a "real man" P the ultimate compliment in Russia. In opinion polls, more than half of Russians support air raids over Chechen territory. And Putin's personal approval rating has tripled in the past month, to 17 percent.

Experts say the prime minister's increasing popularity owes much to the perception that the Chechen conflict has been almost painless for the Russian side. Mikhail Delyagin, of the Moscow think-tank Globalization Instiute, told RFE/RL: "As soon as soldiers start dying and coffins start being dispatched throughout the regions, Russians' anger will grow tremendously."

Apart from public support, Putin also needs the support of the army. During the last Chechen war, unprepared, under-equipped conscripts were sent into combat. The army limped away from that conflict in humiliation. One expert on Russian military affairs, Ruslan Pukhov, estimates the forces' current combat readiness at a dismal 10 percent.

So this week, Putin held out a hand to Russian officers and the arms industry, calling for higher defense spending to meet military needs. In his words, "Russia needs to spend additional funds and must therefore change its priorities to weaponry."

A government committee has recommended a substantial increase in the defense budget -- more than 20 percent. The military, hard hit by economic reforms and crises, has been pushing for more money for years.

Russian military affairs expert Pukhov says the Russian authorities should have learned from their earlier experience that the military needs more funding. In an interview with a Russian daily yesterday, he said, "Russian authorities have to overcome their (I) fear of the army meddling in the interior political process." Pukhov said that fear was the cause of what he called "systematic under-financing of the army and the military-industrial complex."

But Dmitry Trenin, a military expert with the Carnegie Fund, points out that the Russian Finance Ministry seems far from confident that there will be any extra money to give the military. An International Monetary Fund official told RFE/RL the fund is concerned that there has already been a high level of spending on the Chechnya conflict.