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Russia: Analysts Say Putin May Be Overreaching

  • Sophie Lambroschini

Russian President Vladimir Putin's quick rise through the ranks of the political establishment and his background in the security services led many observers to expect strong leadership. Upon his election in March, Putin's oratory did not disappoint. He vowed to do battle with Russia's rich and often corrupt business tycoons -- known as oligarchs -- and anyone else who stood in his way. But analysts now wonder whether Putin has not blundered by launching attacks on so many fronts. RFE/RL correspondent Sophie Lambroschini reports from Moscow.

Moscow, 11 July 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Russian law-enforcement authorities moved once again today against media and private business interests.

Agents of the Federal Security Service, the FSB, today raided the offices of the Media-MOST group for the second time, seizing financial documents. Also today, the office of the prosecutor-general accused oil giant LUKoil of cheating on its taxes. At the same time, the prosecutor-general demanded $140 million from Norilsk Nickel, saying the company owes the government compensation for a fraudulently conducted privatization.

Denis Rodionov, an analyst at Brunswick-Warburg, told RFE/RL that these frontal attacks against the oligarchs are worrisome because the strategy behind them is unclear. In his words: "There's a big attack against oligarchs going on, but it's taking place in a strange way. First of all, the oligarchs who were attacked are not those that investors link with the most violations in privatization schemes. On the contrary, the attacks are coming against those who manage their capital and companies best."

Business observers also note that the government's attacks bypassed some of the tycoons said to be most influential in the Kremlin, such as Roman Abramovich, head of the oil company Sibneft. This is spurring accusations that some of the oligarchs are trying to confiscate their rivals' industrial jewels for themselves -- using Putin as their puppet.

Putin's head-on conflict with Russia's tycoons has not been his only confrontation. The Russian president has also thrown himself into an open struggle with Russia's regional governors over his plan to consolidate central authority at the expense of the regions.

Yesterday (Monday), the upper house of parliament or Federation Council -- where the governors sit -- rejected for the second time the Kremlin's draft laws on the issue.

Instead of heading for the G-8 summit in Okinawa two weeks from now (eds: July 21-23) with an already adopted state reform program, as he had hoped, Putin will be trying to hammer out a compromise over the summer.

Mikhail Delyagin, head of the Moscow-based Institute for Geopolitical Studies, says that in choosing blunt force over compromise, Putin has exposed his weaknesses and is already eroding his support. As Delyagin puts it, "He managed to get mixed up in many conflicts simultaneously, and with almost all of the influential groups in Russia. In such conflicting conditions even the absolute support of the population that he still has may not help him, because he appears to be not very skilled as a political manager."

Delyagin is not alone in his assessment. This week's lead editorial in the "Kommersant" weekly business magazine is titled: "The Weakness of the Firm Hand." The editorial reflects the growing doubts about whether Putin is wielding his much-touted "toughness" intelligently. According to "Kommersant," Putin has already lost his "aura of invincibility."

Delyagin points out that Putin's frequent policy reversals, which often begin with fist-banging rigor and, when that fails, segue into negotiations, slow down the reform process and undermine the president's credibility.

New centers of opposition could be the result. Already, oligarch Boris Berezovsky, who claims to have masterminded the victory of Putin's Unity party in Duma elections, announced that he would create an opposition party of regional heads.

Last month, 17 of Russia's most powerful business leaders, reacting to the arrest of Media-MOST chairman Vladimir Gusinsky, warned Putin in a letter about the negative signal such moves send to the business community in Russia and abroad.

In Delyagin's opinion, Putin is not quite the ruthless Pinochet his democratic opponents have made him out to be. "He reminds me more of [Soviet leader Mikhail] Gorbachev," notes Delyagin. Gorbachev frittered away much of his political influence by switching from his revolutionary policy of glasnost to the bloody repression of protesters in Tbilisi and Vilnius, under the influence of conservatives.

In the end, Gorbachev aliented both conservatives and liberals -- but most of all, he alienated the Russian people, on whose support he hoped to depend. Putin risks doing the same.