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Russia: Some Economic Analysts Cautiously Welcome Putin

On New Year's Eve, Boris Yeltsin resigned as president of Russia, leaving Vladimir Putin as acting president. In the West, Putin is known only for his pursuit of the war in Chechnya. RFE/RL's Andrew F. Tully spoke with several economists to learn what they expect Putin will do about Russia's battered economy.

Washington, 4 January 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Some Western economic analysts are cautiously welcoming the accession of Vladimir Putin as acting president of Russia.

But they concede that Boris Yeltsin's hand-picked successor cannot improve Russia's economy overnight, and that his true intentions may not become evident for some time.

Claude Barfield is a resident scholar in economics at the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington think tank. He told RFE/RL that Putin appears to have little background in fiscal policy, but stresses that this is not an insurmountable problem.

"The one sort of big, silent issue is a lot of the questions of economics, and he certainly doesn't have as much background in that. But that's not to say that a strong leader can't get good advisers and then act."

Joseph Pelzman, a professor of economics at George Washington University in Washington, was less equivocal in his assessment of Putin's abilities.

"Well, I mean, he comes from the right kind of background. He's KGB, or was. He's had experience in governance. He's no fool in terms of understanding what his constraints are."

But Pelzman says that corruption is so ingrained in Russia, and its financial infrastructure is so fractured, that no leader can expect quick results.

"Not in the short run. I mean, no one individual over there can do anything in the short run."

Pelzman told RFE/RL that corruption in Russia worsened since the fall of communism because of all the money that flowed into the country, including money from the International Monetary Fund (IMF). This money, he says, got into the hands of people who were interested primarily in "trying to rip the system off," as he put it.

"And they're still around, and they will be around even if Putin, you know, tries to arrest the major players. But he wouldn't even know who to start with because the level of corruption is so deep."

And Barfield, of the American Enterprise Institute, says the world probably will not see the "real" Putin until after the presidential election -- assuming Putin is elected. He notes that Putin must maintain a steady course for the Kremlin in order not to anger Russian voters.

"I suspect that you're really not going to see him tip his hand and show his true intentions until and unless -- and I think the chances are pretty good -- he receives a substantial mandate from the election."

Barfield says that raises the question of whether Putin has the will to make the difficult decisions -- whether before or after the election -- to fight corruption and rescue Russia's economy.

"Well, it depends on whether he wants to expend the political capital. I mean, the forces of corruption, including some people who are supporting him, no doubt, are pretty strongly entrenched."

Barfield was asked whether the determination Putin has used in pursuing the war in Chechnya could be brought effectively to improve Russia's economy.

"That's right, as long as he knows what he's doing. I mean, you can be very -- you can have a very determined, forceful policy which is wrong. And so it'll depend on his ability to educate himself and be educated by sensible advisers."

On New Year's Eve, hours after Yeltsin announced his resignation, Keith Bush, an analyst with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank, welcomed Putin and bade Yeltsin good riddance. Bush called the former president "clearly physically and mentally impaired."

On Monday, he told RFE/RL that Putin's record in the KGB and as first deputy mayor of St. Petersburg shows he is an effective administrator. But Bush says it remains to be seen whether Putin is a true reformer.

The change of leadership in Russia, meanwhile, does not mean a change of policy at the International Monetary Fund. Stanley Fischer, the IMF's first deputy managing director, says the fund's decisions are based on policies, not people.

The IMF has loaned more than $20 billion to Russia over the past eight years, and is now withholding an installment of $640 million until Moscow meets conditions on improving its banking and other financial practices.