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Russia: Putin Has Opportunity To Fight Corruption

  • Andrew Tully

Foreign policy analysts say Vladimir Putin, newly elected president of Russia in his own right, now must prove himself by fighting the corruption that is gripping his country. These experts say his background in the KGB is not necessarily a liability for Putin, and in fact may help him deal with the "oligarchs" who control much of Russia's wealth. RFE/RL's Andrew F. Tully reports.

Washington, 28 March 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Several foreign policy analysts say Russia's president-elect, Vladimir Putin, faces an important opportunity to bring reform to his country's beleaguered economy.

They note that Putin recently pledged that Russia would feel much less of the influence of "oligarchs" -- the few individuals who control a large portion of the nation's wealth. These men are often accused of putting their own well-being ahead of their nation's economic health.

The panel members -- speaking to reporters on Monday at the Nixon Center, a Washington think-tank -- agree that Putin probably will try to limit the oligarchs' influence on government, but they doubt that he would be able to eliminate their influence on the economy entirely.

One analyst was Yuli Vorontsov, a former Russian ambassador to the U.S., who joined the symposium by telephone from New York and spoke in English. Vorontsov stressed that there are very few oligarchs in Russia -- perhaps no more than two dozen. But he said much of their great wealth is invested in banks and industries in the West. He estimated that between $150 billion and $300 billion in Russian wealth is now in Western banks.

However, Vorontsov said Putin actually does not need to undertake a harsh crackdown on them, but merely persuade them not to interfere with the government and share their wealth with Russia.

"I feel that President Putin is going to invite the oligarchs -- and many others who have the money -- to invest not in the Western economies but to invest in the Russian economy."

The analysts also expressed little concern about Putin's career with the KGB. In fact, Susan Eisenhower, a distinguished visiting fellow at the Nixon Center, said she expects the president-elect to summon former KGB colleagues to Moscow to help him cope with corruption.

"Let's face it, if Mr. Putin is going to take on the oligarchs, he could not do so without one of the major pillars of power within the Russian structure left over from Soviet days."

Paul Saunders, the director of the Nixon Center, said Putin understands the nature of Russia's corruption problem, and he agreed that Putin's KGB background could be an asset in fighting it. But he said he doubts Putin will conduct a widespread crackdown on corruption because of what he called the potential for "inconvenient results" -- implicating relatives of former Russian President Boris Yeltsin, as well as associates of Putin himself. Instead, Saunders said, he expects Putin will target lesser figures for prosecution -- not the leading oligarchs themselves. He explained that these targets would have to be powerful enough to satisfy the Russian people that Putin is waging a credible campaign against corruption, but not so powerful that they could retaliate against the government.

And Saunders said the targets should not only be businessmen, but also military and law enforcement officials, judges, politicians. This way, Putin would demonstrate that his crackdown is not too narrowly focused.

But Saunders emphasized that such a crackdown would be so massive that it will take a long time to determine whether Putin is serious.

"In the long run, though, I think, if it's not the kind of comprehensive effort that is outlined by the kind of indicators I've tried to suggest, it's really likely that we'll see just one more in the long line of inefficient Russian government attempts to stamp out corruption that we've seen in the last 10 years."

Vorontsov, the former Russian ambassador to the U.S., said that no matter how much Russia needs investment from the West, Putin will be alert to any signs of what he called American "paternalism." Russia, along with China, resents that the U.S. is the dominant power in the world since the breakup of the Soviet Union.

Peter Rodman, the director of national security programs at the Nixon Center, said Putin does not want Russia's current economic weakness to lead to further U.S. dominance. He cited Russia's growing closeness to China to counter American power, and said it is significant that the president-elect has announced that his first trip out of Russia after the election will be to China.

It is also noteworthy that the first government reactions to Putin's election on Sunday were cautious -- except in the case of China. Germany spoke of "great expectations." U.S. President Bill Clinton, the European Union and France -- in a separate statement as well -- congratulated Putin on his victory but all expressed concern about reported Russian human rights abuses in Chechnya.

But Chinese President Jiang Zemin hailed Putin's election as a major step toward building what it called "a multipolar world and establishing a fair and reasonable new international order."