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Russia: Strains In The Putin Coalition


By Don Jensen

Although Russian President Vladimir Putin's public opinion rating remains high, his effort to consolidate his rule is meeting resistance from the groups that brought him to power. In an analysis, RFE/RL Associate Director of Broadcasting Don Jensen says that how Putin manages these strains may be decisive for the fate of his presidency.

Prague, 12 July 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Since he took office as Russian president, Vladimir Putin has faced a dilemma.

One the one hand, he is a product of the Yeltsin system, where political power was highly personal, interconnected with property, and fragmented among oligarchs, regional leaders, and the federal bureaucracy. Until his political and physical decline, Boris Yeltsin preserved this system and his own authority by balancing these competing power centers. The centers agreed on Putin as Yeltsin's heir largely because he seemed likely to preserve their interests.

On the other hand, to become his own man, Putin needed to break with the past. Many voters supported him because of his promises to rein in the oligarchs, curb corruption, and introduce order. In this they were backed by elements of the security services, which were appalled at the excesses of the Yeltsin era.

Because of this contradiction -- and due to his own inexperience -- Putin's first months in office were a muddle. During the election campaign, Putin promised a crackdown on the oligarchs, but he was unwilling or unable to prevent those magnates close to the Kremlin from strengthening their hold on the lucrative aluminum industry.

The new government is a coalition of economic reformers and ministers with ties to the business oligarchs or the Yeltsin family. Although its new economic plan says many of the right things about reform, infighting helped delay it for weeks. Despite the plan's optimistic tone, the government has shown no sign of having the authority or determination to take on Russia's entrenched economic interests. Indeed, in important ways it represents them.

Meanwhile, the presidential administration, which under Yeltsin had considerable clout in its own right, continues to play behind-the-scenes politics.

Recently, as Russian political scientist Lilia Shevtsova has pointed out, Putin has begun to create an alternative, more centralized system of governing the country that may fundamentally change the political rules of the game. His state of the nation speech last Saturday (July 8) was his strongest break yet with the Yeltsin legacy. After a bleak diagnosis of Russia's ills, the president prescribed as a remedy "a single, vertical line of executive power."

First, Putin has stepped up his campaign to subordinate regional leaders to the federal center. Most attention has been focused on his use of the compliant Duma majority to pressure the Federation Council -- the upper house manned by the governors -- to agree to his proposals for political and financial decentralization. Equally important, however, has been the Kremlin's chipping away of the governors' authority in law enforcement, a key element in their ability to rule.

Second, Putin has placed political allies in important businesses such as Gazprom, Svyazinvest, Rostelekom, and Irkutskenergo. Not only will these moves increase Kremlin control over these firms; it will dilute the longstanding influence of federal and provincial officials on their business activities.

Third, the president has packed the previously unimportant Security Council with intelligence and former KGB officers loyal to him. Putin clearly hopes to transform the council -- which includes the ministers of defense, foreign, interior, and emergency situations, known as the power ministers, as well as the seven governors general he appointed to reign in the regions -- into an important decision-making body that will be a counterweight to the presidential administration. Under a bill approved by the Duma in its first reading last month, the council would run the country if the president declared a state of political, criminal, or environmental emergency.

Although Putin currently has the political momentum, it is unclear that his initiatives will work. The governors' resistance has been greater than expected, and, no matter what compromise emerges, they will be difficult to control, let alone dislodge. Media magnate Vladimir Gusinsky's ability to rally enough support to force his release from jail shows that the oligarchs can directly challenge the security services. The Security Council remains a talk shop, for now at least, and is far weaker than the presidential administration, which can call on a large bureaucracy and considerable political skill and financial resources. Finally, senior members of the military can only be privately upset by the rare and humiliating public reprimand Putin gave them earlier this month after more than 50 people were killed by suicide bombings in Chechnya.

These points of resistance are far from an organized opposition. Despite oligarch Boris Berezovsky's recent announcement that he intends to form a political party to counter Putin, the disparate groups that oppose the president have few common interests and public opinion is still strongly behind Putin. Nevertheless, the president needs the support of some of them to govern and bolster his own political base. As Shevtsova correctly notes, Putin also appears ambivalent himself about how he intends to proceed.

Yet for all the attention Putin has given to political maneuvering, he seems to have done little more than verbally acknowledge the country's acute economic and social problems. Widely respected Kemerovo Governor Aman Tuleev, for example, generally praised Putin's state of the nation address, but wondered why the government has not done enough in recent months to help his constituents.
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