Never at a loss for words, a relaxed and confident Putin answered questions for more than an hour. The president's image makers could not have asked for a better performance. Putin came across as supremely focused, occasionally witty, and casually fashionable in his black turtleneck and blazer. He promised Russians the stars and the moon.
"We are going to strengthen the multiparty system, we will strengthen civil society. We will do everything to ensure freedom of the press,” Putin said. “And along with this, we are going to create conditions which will allow neither bureaucrats pretending to represent the government's interests nor phrase-mongers spouting democratic slogans to fill their pockets."
Putin, in his first term as Russia's president, has accumulated more personal power than any leader since Soviet times. By any measure, his first four years in office can be characterized as a massive effort to recentralize power in the Kremlin -- power that had been dispersed under his predecessor Boris Yeltsin.
Regional politicians who used to enjoy considerable autonomy have been brought to heel. A once-fractious parliament has been turned into a rubber-stamp assembly. Independent national television has been reined back under state control. Businessmen who challenge the Kremlin have been driven into exile or jailed. And a new unelected nationwide bureaucracy that reports directly to the president has expanded.
This was capped by presidential elections yesterday that followed an almost virtual electoral campaign in which no issues were discussed and in which Putin's challengers struggled to get air time in the state media. As a result, Putin trounced his nearest rivals by more than 50 percentage points. So where is Russia headed during the next four years and what are we to make of Putin's promises?
A former deputy in the lower house of parliament, the Duma, and political commentator, Vladimir Lysenko, believes Russia is likely to follow an authoritarian pattern set by many Soviet successor states. "This once again indicates that we are moving to a paternalistic regime or that we have one already," he said. "And we may soon find ourselves in a situation similar to Turkmenistan's, where we will not need to have elections at all, but rather will just hold a plebiscite. As we know, that is also the situation in a number of other post-Soviet republics."
Nikolai Petrov, a political analyst at the Carnegie Institute in Moscow, also sees the first Putin administration and yesterday's election as laying the groundwork for a centralized, authoritarian regime. But he believes this set-up may prove to be a poisoned chalice for Putin.
"We have far weaker chambers of parliament than earlier, we have far weaker regional leaders. Ideologically based parliamentary political parties have practically vanished. In this way, the system of checks and balances, which existed more or less under Yeltsin, is now basically gone. This is a colossal problem -- not only for society, but I believe for the government as well," Petrov said.
The reason, Petrov says, is simple -- with no institutional checks and balances and the Kremlin now filled with handpicked yes men, there is simply no one to block bad policy decisions. All presidents need criticism to shape their judgment, especially when attempting bold economic reforms.
But Russia is now set to return to an age-old pattern where officials all the way down the bureaucratic pyramid trip over themselves to fulfill the Kremlin's orders -- no matter what they may be. And when they cannot, they will lie or cook the books to make it appear that all is in order. That is what led the Soviet system to rot from within. And Petrov fears this could happen again.
"The problem we are now confronting is that there is the illusion, in society and in the government, that our relatively positive recent economic development is the result of someone's well-planned efforts in the government in conjunction with the president. In fact, I believe external factors are responsible to a far greater degree. So if those external factors change in the near future, we could see that the state machine which has been created could turn out to be very ineffective," Petrov said.
Yesterday's election results show that apart from the Communists, who have retained a party base -- a "brand name," as Russian commentators put it -- opposition politicians, especially the liberal "democrats" favored by the West, have been marginalized.
Vladimir Lysenko says these "democrats" are in part responsible for their own demise, for having allied themselves too closely to the Yeltsin regime. "Today, we have no moral ideals and no moral leaders left such as Andrei Sakharov. We have no political leaders that the country could trust and vote for," he said. "I think it's a very bitter lesson for us all that the past 14 years have ended in such an enormous defeat and the collapse and atomization of the whole democratic movement. Undoubtedly, the democrats themselves are also to blame. I think the government of former President Boris Yeltsin carries much blame. It wanted to accumulate power and the democratic movement, by catering to it, discredited itself."
Irina Khakamada, the liberal right-of-center candidate who placed fourth in yesterday's election, admitted those failings when she announced her intention to form a new political party. "I am going to deal with the problems of ordinary people,” she said. “I am convinced that this is where the right-wing parties went wrong. They focused too much on business and forgot that the market, freedom, and democracy can be combined with decent salaries for officers, soldiers, doctors, and teachers and decent pensions for retirees and child benefits for families. People have decided that in order to have a normal life, it is necessary to give up their freedoms."
Nikolai Petrov, at the Carnegie Institute, says that given the circumstances, any new political party will face almost insurmountable barriers in establishing itself as an alternative power center. "There is no base for the emergence of political forces that could be truly independent from both the Kremlin and from the oligarchs which are closely linked to the government," he said. "On the other hand, there is an absence of suitable people and there is nowhere for them to come from. If earlier the Duma could serve as a springboard for new faces and incubate new politicians, today the Duma -- it's clear -- cannot play this role. What we see is a practical return to the old system, when the only new faces that could emerge came from the pyramid of executive power as handpicked successors."
For now, Russians have placed their trust in Vladimir Putin and they do not seem to mind. He has vowed to double gross domestic product in the next decade and rebuild Russia into a vibrant and powerful nation, while offering a guarantee of economic stability and a return to law and order.
He may yet succeed. But if things turn sour, Russians will know whom to blame: the "phrase-mongers and the bureaucrats."