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2001 In Review: For Vladimir Putin, A Year Of Transformation

  • Kathleen Moore

The year 2001 saw Vladimir Putin transformed in the eyes of the West, from an enigmatic potential enemy to an important ally lauded for his swift and firm support in the war against terrorism. Along the way, he has secured a bigger say for Russia in world affairs. But critics say the Russian president continues to blend authoritarian and reformist tendencies.

Prague, 13 December 2001 (RFE/RL) -- In many ways, 2001 appeared to begin in old-fashioned style at the Kremlin.

The old Soviet anthem was dusted off and reworded for the new era. The former KGB man at the top, Vladimir Putin, looked set for a high-stakes confrontation with the U.S. over Washington's plans to withdraw from a key arms treaty and develop a missile-defense system. And U.S. President George W. Bush added another tinge of frost to the January air when he suggested that financial aid to Russia should be linked to guarantees against corruption.

But by the end of the year, NATO was offering Russia a historic say in its affairs, and a watershed in U.S.-Russian relations was hailed after Putin's fourth -- and chummiest -- meeting with Bush, this time at the U.S. president's Texas ranch in November: "Being here, I feel the will of the American people to cooperate with Russia. I can assure you, I can guarantee that the Russian people have the same feelings."

Even today's expected announcement that the U.S. intends to scrap the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty has so far drawn surprisingly mild reaction from Russian officials, with Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov calling the decision "regrettable" but saying it will have no impact on Russian security. Stronger words may be on the way, but the warmer relations between Putin and the West are undeniable -- and unlikely to be reversed by the U.S. withdrawal from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty.

What's largely made the difference, of course, is 11 September and the warmer relations it ushered in after Putin offered Russia's firm support for the U.S.-led campaign against terrorism.

The move went a long way toward boosting Putin's international prestige. At the same time, however, it raised questions about whether he is at risk of losing support at home by backing the U.S. so wholeheartedly.

Archie Brown is a specialist in Russian politics at Oxford University. He says Putin has been surprisingly flexible in offering his support to the U.S.: "There was understandably some suspicion of [Putin], given his KGB background. But he has shown quite a lot of imagination, and while for the most part he has been rather cautious and has operated from within a consensus in the Russian political elite, on 11 September and immediately after he showed considerable independence from elite opinion and identified with American policy and a likely American response to terrorism with great alacrity. People who have dealt with him since then have been quite impressed with his diplomatic skills and analytical abilities."

Even before 11 September, Bush was warming up to his Russian counterpart. After he met Putin for the first time in Ljubljana in June, the U.S. president called him a leader Americans can trust. "I looked him in the eye," Bush said of Putin. "I found him to be very straightforward and trustworthy. [I] wouldn't have invited him to my ranch if I didn't trust him."

On the eve of their third meeting of the year in Shanghai -- just weeks after the 11 September attacks -- Bush was saying he couldn't wait to visit "my friend Vladimir Putin."

And by the time of the mid-November summit in Crawford, Texas, Bush said he was gaining insight into what made the Russian president tick: "The more I get to know President Putin, the more I get to see his heart and soul, the more I know we can work together in a positive way."

At the same time, the once camera-shy Putin seemed to be displaying a growing confidence in his role. At a July press conference at the Kremlin, he fielded questions from some 500 Russian and foreign journalists and had it broadcast live -- quite a shift in style for a president who had previously tended to face the press in small groups.

At the news conference, Putin fielded questions in English and even occasionally revealed his lighter side. One journalist asked what had happened to his pet white poodle, first seen when Boris Yeltsin appointed him acting president, but since supplanted by a black Labrador.

Putin responded first by saying the dog had dyed its hair: "It's a female. [Women] always dye their hair." The real answer, for any dog lover interested, is that the poodle is still there but spends more time with Putin's wife.

The Kremlin press conference contrasted sharply with Putin's handling of the "Kursk" submarine disaster a year earlier. When the "Kursk" sank in August 2000 with 118 men on board, Putin was heavily criticized for not returning immediately from a Black Sea holiday. He later admitted that it would have been better from a "public relations point of view" if he had cut his holiday short.

This autumn -- as if to make up for the public relations damage -- he went ahead with an unprecedented $65-million operation to recover the vessel and give its dead crewmen proper burials. Putin also recently sacked the head of the Northern Fleet and some dozen other top navy officers -- a move some saw as a delayed response to the "Kursk" disaster.

Elsewhere, the Russian president met with greater criticism, particularly regarding the media. The year 2001 saw the state tighten its grip on independent media, with two broadcasters and two publications being brought under control.

In April, the state-controlled gas monopoly Gazprom finally took over NTV, a television station founded by business tycoon Vladimir Gusinsky. Gusinsky's media empire further crumbled just days later when the gas giant shut down his "Segodnya" daily and fired the staff of his "Itogi" political weekly.

Many of NTV's journalists fled to TV-6, owned by a rival oligarch, Boris Berezovsky. But in September, a court ruled TV-6's parent company be liquidated, at a stroke wiping out the last private broadcaster willing to air criticism of the Kremlin.

In the past, Putin has brushed off suggestions that press freedom in Russia is under threat, saying that Gusinsky and Berezovsky ran into trouble because they incurred debts. But critics say the law used to squelch both TV stations would put most Russian companies out of business if it were applied across the board.

Russian analyst Archie Brown: "Now, certainly there are grounds for concern about the financing of these television stations, but what has been applied, what has happened, is a selective application of the law. And it so happens that the parts of the mass media which were most independent of the state authorities and most liable to be critical are the ones which have been targeted."

Putin's handling of the war in Chechnya also continues to be of concern to human rights activists. They worry that he is using the war on terrorism to justify his campaign in the breakaway republic, which has caused suffering to countless civilians.

NATO Secretary-General Lord George Robertson, on a November visit to Moscow, said the events of 11 September had influenced the alliance's view of the problems Russia is facing in Chechnya: "We understand even more graphically what Russia has had to experience from terrorism emanating from Chechnya because of what happened in New York and Washington. We sympathize with Russia. We work alongside Russia in dealing with the terrorist networks that have caused that trouble, but we still retain some concerns about the means that Russia has used to deal with the undoubted problems that it has in Chechnya, and that remains our position and hasn't changed at all."

Observers characterize Putin's style as a blend of autocratic and reformist tendencies.

Just as Gusinsky's Media Most was losing control of NTV to Gazprom in the spring, Putin set out a list of priorities -- including some liberal reforms -- in a key speech to members of both houses of parliament. The civil service would be downsized, the tax regime overhauled, the judicial system reformed, and red tape hacked, he said. One of his biggest achievements came in October, when Putin signed into law the land code, making it legal to buy and sell a limited amount of Russian land for the first time since pre-Soviet days.

A more ambiguous reform this year, Brown says, was Putin's drive to limit the number of political parties: "It's too early to tell whether that will be damaging for democracy. It could actually turn out to be an improvement on the existing state of affairs, because if it leads not only to fewer political parties -- which should be the case -- but also to stronger political parties, then that would be a very worthwhile result."

With the economy still ticking along nicely, his international prestige boosted and his approval rating at home still high, 2001 appears to have been a very good year for the Russian president.

Brown says Putin's position looks comfortable for the time being -- especially with much of the media granting him sympathetic coverage.

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