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Russia: Harvard Experts Assess Putin

  • Michael Lelyveld



The performance of Russia's new president, Vladimir Putin, has been given a mixed report card by Harvard University experts. Professors Richard Pipes and Marshall Goldman agree he has taken some promising steps, but they are sharply critical of his methods in enforcing the rule of law. NCA Correspondent Michael Lelyveld explains their views in this report.

Boston, 26 May 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Russian President Vladimir Putin's first steps in office have received broadly similar ratings from leading analysts at Harvard University, but there were sharp differences among some experts over his efforts to increase authority and respect for the law.

Speaking at a Harvard seminar this week, U.S. and Russian experts gave their report cards on Putin as president and acting president over the past five months.

Leonid Gozman, chief strategist for the Union of Right Forces during the 1999 campaign for the State Duma, split his evaluation of Putin into what he called "good news" and "bad news." Gozman, who now serves as chief adviser to Anatoly Chubais, the chairman of Unified Electrical Systems, noted that Putin has named an impressive list of reformers to his economic team, calling the appointments "good news."

In particular, Gozman cited economist Aleksei Kudrin as deputy prime minister, German Gref as minister for economic development, and economic adviser Andrei Illarionov. Gozman praised proposals to lower Russia's income tax rate to 13 percent as a sign that Putin will push for sweeping change.

He also hailed Putin's plans to crack down on corruption, saying, "There is a very high level of anxiety among oligarchs. They are very nervous now." But Gozman added, "The bad news is they're not nervous enough."

Also on the negative side of Putin's report card, Gozman pointed to former KGB officials that Putin has brought into government. He was particularly critical of the raid on Media-MOST headquarters in Moscow earlier this month. Gozman had harsh words for the government's intimidation of journalists and limits on press freedom. "It's very bad news. It's very dangerous," he said.

Gozman sees the major factor of Putin's presidency as his enormous popularity, which has created what he called "fantastic opportunities."

Gozman said, "He can improve democracy, and he can destroy democracy. He can improve the market economy, and he can go back to the socialist economy."

Two of America's top experts on Russia agreed on the choices that are open to Putin, but they noted many troubling signs.

Marshall Goldman, associate director of Harvard's Davis Center for Russian Studies, said, "I'm still ending up with a bad report card here, and great concern."

While Goldman agreed that Putin had promoted some liberal economists, he voiced disappointment with the naming of Mikhail Kasyanov as prime minister because of his reported links to Russian banks and his dislike for reform economists like Gref.

Goldman said Putin has also showed signs of being too close Russia's oligarchs. Putin did nothing to stop the creation of an aluminum monopoly. He has also ruled out the renationalization of companies that do not pay tax arrears or debts, Goldman said.

But the biggest differences came over Putin's efforts to establish a rule of law. Gozman supported measures to rein in Russia's governors, for example, and to strip them of immunity by restructuring the Federation Council of parliament. Gozman said, "Everybody in Russia understands that it's necessary to rebuild the state."

The American experts were far more troubled by Putin's drive to centralize power.

Richard Pipes, a Harvard history professor and author of many books on Russia, focused on the different concepts of law in Russia and the West. In the West, Pipes said, law is seen as above both governments and its citizens. But Pipes said that Putin appears to regard law only as "an instrument of administration."

Pipes said, "There is a great deal of evidence that neither Putin nor the people around him understand what law is." In Russia, the government enforces the law but it is not restrained by the law, he said.

Goldman also pointed to Putin's attempt to control Russia's governors, saying that the effort may be needed to establish respect for the law, but the methods are troubling because they imply that elections can be overruled.

Goldman said that Putin had missed an opportunity to strengthen Russia's democratic institutions from the very start of his rise to the presidency by refusing to campaign, relying instead on the popularity of the war in Chechnya.



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