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Russia: Putin Is Not the Enigma Commentators Think

Since Vladimir Putin stepped in as interim president of Russia after Boris Yeltsin's unexpected resignation on December 31, commentators and government analysts in the West have been asking: Who is this man? What kind of leader will he be? RFE/RL Associate Director of Broadcasting Donald Jensen, Russia expert and former U.S. diplomat, says they may be asking the wrong questions.

Prague, 6 January 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Russia specialist Donald Jensen says many commentators and analysts betray what he calls "appalling naivete" as they seek to take the measure of Russia's acting President Vladimir Putin.

Jensen is associate director of broadcasting at Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty in Prague. Before joining the radios, he served as a U.S. Foreign Service officer and was stationed at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow.

Jensen says Putin is neither an unknown nor a mystery. Putin is -- barring unforeseen developments -- almost certain to be elected Russia's president in elections set for March 26. He probably will set out skillfully on an ambitious program to reform the Russian government and economy. And, Jensen says, he will probably fail by Western standards.

Jensen says much commentary over the last week examines Putin through what Jensen calls "a Western prism." Asking questions like these: Is he a communist or a reformer, a dictator or a democrat, new Russian or old guard? The Russian leader is all of those things, Jensen says. If you understand Russian culture, the RFE/RL expert says, you will understand that they are not contradictory.

"The questions were immediately American [and other Western] ones, which in many ways are old questions. Is he a dictator or a democrat? Is he a reformer or is he an old-guard or retrograde? The question is really, I think, is he a communist?"

The RFE/RL analyst says he is concerned about a narrowness of viewpoint and wishful thinking he has discerned.

He says The New York Times published an article recently by a writer identified as a Russia scholar that questioned whether Putin would take Russia back to early reforms of nearly 10 years ago, such as unregulated free markets. The chances of that, in Jensen's words, are "roughly zero."

He adds that comments describing Putin hopefully as a reformer are equally unrealistic. Jensen says such talk stems from misinformation. As the RFE/RL specialist puts it:

"I think, in reality, Putin is a product of the last decade of the Russian system. That he is neither a dictator nor a democrat, that he is neither a reformer in the sense that we in the United States would like to believe he is, nor a Soviet communist. He's a new kind of figure that emerges from this particular Russian crisis. And things he calls for that seem on the surface contradictory are not."

Jensen says these include urging both a strong state and private property, or calling for both a powerful, independent Russian foreign policy and for progress and cooperation with international institutions. In Jensen's words: "These things are not contradictory. They are just not Western ideas."

Jensen says comments about Putin as an unknown and somehow mysterious figure also are uninformed. He says Putin has left a substantial record.

Jensen cites the following:

Putin was an intelligence agent in Germany probably engaged in economic espionage at the time of the fall of East Germany. There were reports -- that remain without any confirmation -- that indicate likely links with the Russian oligarchs. Putin evidently never pushed to find the assassin of a Duma liberal murdered in his stronghold of St. Petersburg; participated in the use of sex scandal tapes to discredit a prosecutor who was pursuing corruption charges within the political group known as the "Yeltsin family;" and openly approved the long and fruitless pursuit and persecution of an environmentalist who blew the whistle on (that is, disclosed) radioactive pollution from deteriorating Russian nuclear submarines.

This record, Jensen says, reveals a tough, wily and probably very effective strongman, but one who in the end will fail to bring Russia into the community of democratic and free nations.

"What you'll see under a Putin presidency Year One is indeed an aggressive attack on some kinds of corruption -- which will certainly not include those oligarchs who support him. A very energetic pursuit of things like foreign investment. A heavier emphasis on developing Russia's armed forces and that kind of thing. All of this coming, I suspect, at the expense of building the kind of 'rule of law' state that, in the long run, Russia really needs, not only to reform the economy, but also to reform the political system."

Jensen says he expects Russian voters to elect Putin president on March 26, both because he has a significant power base in Russia that is seeking to pre-arrange things that way, but also because he is truly popular. That popularity rests largely on his tough stance in the Russian war in Chechnya. The RFE/RL expert says that the Russian leader is therefore vulnerable in case of severe setbacks in Chechnya.

But in Jensen's words, "Probably not in the next 90 days."