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Russia: Putin's Inauguration Heralds 'Old-New Russia'

  • Jeremy Bransten



Vladimir Putin -- a 47-year-old former KGB agent who has never held any elected office -- will be inaugurated as Russia's second president on Sunday (May 7). Who is Putin and what direction is his administration likely to take? RFE/RL correspondent Jeremy Bransten takes a closer look.

Prague, 4 May 2000 (RFE/RL) -- -Anointed as Boris Yeltsin's heir-apparent at the end of last year and with full Kremlin support, Putin was elected by popular vote on March 26. He promises to restore Russia's great-power status and rescue its economy from years of crisis.

During his campaign, Putin published no comprehensive program, saying he would reveal details of his policies only after his inauguration. State television showed the acting president going about the business of being a leader: hosting dignitaries, visiting factories, kissing babies, but also flying fighter planes, practicing judo and vowing to flush Russia's enemies -- in his phrase -- "down the toilet."

The strategy appeared to work as it allowed Russians to invest the young-looking and tough-talking Putin with all the positive qualities they had missed in Yeltsin -- vigor, decisiveness and an apparent desire to fight corruption -- without being able to criticize specific policies. But Matt Bivens, editor of the "Moscow Times," told RFE/RL he does not expect much to change after Putin's inauguration. He says Putin's main criteria for choosing his staff so far have been connections and loyalty, as was true under Yeltsin:

"I see very little evidence so far that anything will change. I don't think Putin has a very good record. He seems to prefer to persecute people he sees as disloyal to his government and move up those he sees as loyal rather than worry about who is breaking the law and who's not."

Given his lack of a program, journalists have labeled Putin an "enigma." Clues to the direction his administration may take must be gleaned largely from his past.

After an undistinguished 20-year career in the KGB, which included a six-year stint as an intelligence agent in the former East Germany, Putin became an aide to former Saint Petersburg mayor Anatoly Sobchak. The Western press made much of what it called Sobchak's "liberal" economic policies in the early 1990s and Putin, as deputy mayor, oversaw the handing out of lucrative privatization contracts.

But later, few of those vaunted privatization deals materialized and many of the city's key enterprises went bankrupt or fell into the hands of the mafia. Saint Petersburg then became known as one of Russia's most corrupt and dangerous cities.

By that time, Putin had moved on to Moscow, becoming an aide to senior Kremlin adviser Pavel Borodin. When Borodin -- head of the president's administrative office -- found himself entangled in an international corruption scandal which threatened to bring down the Yeltsin administration, Putin was plucked from Borodin's side. He was next appointed head of the KGB's successor agency, the Federal Security Service (FSB).

As the investigation into corruption in the Yeltsin administration gained momentum, a compromising videotape surfaced showing a man appearing to be Prosecutor General Yuri Skuratov in bed with two prostitutes. Skuratov claimed the video was a fake produced by Putin's FSB to discredit him. Whether an FSB fake or the product of an FSB hidden camera, the video had the desired effect. Instead of battling corruption, Skuratov spent most of his time fighting to save his job.

Putin's ascent to prime minister soon followed in August 1999. A few months later, he graduated to acting president when Yeltsin stepped down at New Year's. Putin then granted Yeltsin and his family immunity from all future prosecution.

Putin now trumpets his intention to fight corruption, but the record of his actions speaks a different language. In fact, Putin's rise from lowly KGB agent to the highest ranks of political power appears to have occurred thanks to favors from and deals with influential politicians and men known in Russia as the "oligarchs." The oligarchs -- business men who have used their government connections to turn themselves into multi-millionaires -- are responsible for much of the distrust Russians now harbor toward market forces, as they continue to see a decline in their own standard of living.

As for Putin's popularity among Russian voters, much of it has been based on Moscow's second war in Chechnya. That conflict began last year as a fight against terrorism after a rash of still-unexplained apartment bombings in Moscow and other areas. Putin seized on the conflict to portray himself as a resolute leader -- the new guardian of Russia's dignity and once-formidable military might.

Moscow's humiliating performance in the first Chechen war (1994-96) and its mounting troop casualties in the current campaign suggest the conflict may be un-winnable militarily. Time will tell whether Putin will accept a negotiated peace. But observers find chilling his disregard for the humanitarian catastrophe the conflict has caused, as well as his crude rhetoric. And Putin's blanket dismissal of all Western criticism on the issue has evoked the old Soviet days.

The "Moscow Times'" Bivens faults Western leaders for their eagerness to ingratiate themselves with Russia's new leader. Asked whether he foresees a new Cold War in the offing, Bivens says this is unlikely, if only because Western leaders will continue to make compromises to appease Moscow and win concessions on weapons reductions.

"No, the West seems quite content with the way things are. I thought they sold out people like [RFE/RL correspondent Andrei] Babitksy and [environmental activist Aleksandr] Nikitin and Aleksandr Khinshtein -- another journalist who's been in trouble. They sold these people out, and the entire Chechen land, with sort of startling ease, and the Russian government seems quite content to continue seeking IMF [International Monetary Fund] money. So I think they will just continue to disagree. I don't really see a Cold War."

Vladimir Putin may be relatively young, but his outlook appears to have been shaped by the Cold War and his recipe for Russia is as old as that of the czars and Soviet leaders. He seeks a strong state backed by a well-funded military and security apparatus, and sharp limits on dissent and human rights. His appeals to patriotism are founded on suspicion of the outside world.

Putin's inauguration, then, may open an era of an old-new Russia. In keeping with the new president's revival of old customs, no foreign leaders have been invited to Sunday's inauguration ceremony in Moscow. According to Putin's aides, it will be a purely domestic investiture.

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