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Russia: Putin's One Theme Is Firmness

  • Sophie Lambroschini



Russia's acting President Vladimir Putin is overwhelmingly favored to win the presidential election on Sunday, and the main question in the campaign is whether he will win convincingly enough to avoid a run-off. Correspondent Sophie Lambroschini looks at the man who has built his reputation by being tough on Chechnya.

Moscow, 21 March 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Vladimir Putin's platform is simple: tell the people what they want to hear. Depending on the context and the audience, Putin speaks either of his plans to increase state control over the economy or of his plans to implement market reforms.

Putin began his political career working for the late Saint Petersburg mayor Anatoly Sobchak. A KGB officer for most of his career, he was head of the Federal Security Service (FSB) when Boris Yeltsin appointed him prime minister last August.

Putin refuses to give out details of his plans, saying he doesn't want his program "picked to pieces" by criticism. To Western audiences, Putin portrays himself as pro-Western, for example by telling the BBC that Russia could eventually join NATO someday. But speaking to a Russian audience a few days later, Putin showed his nationalist side, asking why, if NATO does not welcome Russia, should Russia accept NATO enlargement?

At times, Putin plays up his intellectual side, stressing his legal education. Yet he also frequently uses vulgar metaphors and slang, like last fall when he expressed Russia's determination to put an end to terrorism.

"We will pursue the terrorists everywhere, in airports. If you will forgive me, if we catch them in the toilet we will rub them out in the john. The question is closed once and for all. And we have to do this today, quickly, decisively, with clenched teeth, strangle the vermin at the root."

Only on Chechnya has Putin's policy been clear and consistent. He has repeatedly said that Russia will pursue the Chechens to the end. Under Putin, the Russian army has leveled dozens of villages, displaced over 200,000 people, and killed an unknown number of civilians, in addition to losing 2,000 Russian soldiers. Yet the war is quite popular, and Putin's immense popular largely stems for the perception that he is unafraid to act firmly and restore honor and dignity to Russia.

But his short track record doesn't bode well for press freedom in Russia. His government has considerably narrowed journalists' rights to cover the war in Chechnya. A strictly implemented accreditation system makes it virtually impossible for journalists to go to the republic unless accompanied by special military officers on short two-day trips. And the right to quote statements by Chechen commanders branded as "terrorists" has also been restricted.

The fate of RFE/RL's war correspondent Andrey Babitsky served as further intimidation to journalists. Arrested by Russian forces while leaving Grozny, Babitsky was handed over in secret to pro-Russian Chechens in a fake prisoner exchange. Putin later said he approved of this plan, accusing Babitsky of collaborating with the rebels.

So far, this forceful approach is going over well among Russians. For years, Russians were partly entertained and partly appalled by the antics of Yeltsin, who often appeared to be drunk or ill. Putin, by contrast, exudes an aura of control. His statements always have the same quality of soft-spoken, almost whispered firmness.

And as he tailors the thrust of his statements depending on who his audience is, he has managed to win the support of both former communist voters and liberal-minded ones.

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