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Russia: Putin Confounds Western Experts

When Boris Yeltsin handed over the Russian presidency to Vladimir Putin, he handed the West the riddle: What next in the Kremlin? RFE/RL's Andrew F. Tully listened to Washington's experts and found that for all their speculating, they were at a loss.

Washington, 10 January 2000 (RFE/RL) -- With his final act as president of Russia on New Year's Eve, Boris Yeltsin not only stunned the world, but also -- probably to his delight -- confounded Western experts.

Last week, two prestigious Washington think tanks held briefings on what to expect from acting President Vladimir Putin, but none of the panelists could do more than guess.

They all speculated at length, however, and if they agreed on anything, it was that Putin is a pragmatist. This, they concluded, is good news for both Russia and the West.

There was plenty of bad news, of course, particularly from the panel that addressed the briefing last Wednesday (Jan. 5) at the Nixon Center, which specializes in foreign affairs.

Paul Saunders, president of the Nixon Center, says that perhaps the most troubling aspect of Putin's approach to governance is that he prefers a strong presidency at the expense of a weaker parliament. Add to that 15 years in the KGB, Saunders says, and you have a man who is potentially very dangerous at the head of a fledgling democracy.

But only one chapter in Putin's biography is enough for Saunders to condemn him: the war in Chechnya.

"I think he appears to be quite ruthless. I think Chechnya demonstrates that. I don't think that much more needs to be said about that."

On Thursday (Jan. 6), the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace held a similar briefing. Thomas Graham, a senior associate at the think tank, pointed to the essay that Putin posted on the Internet during the last week of December. In it, the acting president advocated a "strong state" for Russia.

Graham interprets this to mean that Putin wants to centralize power in Moscow. In the past, he says, similar centralizations have followed periods of drift and anarchy, and led to authoritarianism, increased government control of the economy, and xenophobia.

Graham says Putin's view of centralization is frighteningly similar to Russia's most recent past.

"Putin is advocating a paternalistic Russian state. He talks about a Russian state that guides and directs society. And if you remember, that's exactly what the Communist Party of the Soviet Union was supposed to do during the Soviet period. And how you're going to square that with a state that doesn't interfere with the economy is not clear to me."

Then there are the so-called "oligarchs" -- the men viewed as having a stranglehold on the Russian economy and, by extension, the Russian government. Some analysts say it is one thing for Putin to distance himself from Yeltsin. But firing Yeltsin's daughter from her influential Kremlin post, they say, is not enough.

Peter Rodman is director of the Nixon Center's National Security Programs. He says Putin could be compromised by the political debts that he may owe to Russian power brokers. They include Boris Berezovsky, the financier and industrialist, and Anatoly Chubais, the utility magnate who brought Putin to Moscow -- and to Yeltsin's attention -- in 1996.

"To the extent that Mr. Putin is really a pragmatist, I would agree that there will be forces that will push him toward economic reform and trying to encourage foreign investment. The question is: What will be his ability to do this, given the relationships that he has with people like Boris Berezovsky, with Anatoly Chubais, and others. These people are interested in foreign investment that they control."

Michael McFaul of the Carnegie Endowment doubts that Putin would shrink when confronted by such men as long as he continues to enjoy broad public support on election day, March 26, because of his handling of the war in Chechnya.

"I've always thought the balance of power was much more complicated than that, and especially if you were elected with a giant mandate in the first round of an election, where 75 percent of the population supports you. Suddenly the balance of power between the so-called 'oligarchs' and Mr. Putin changes radically. Now what he chooses to do with that, I have no idea."

George Handy is an expert on international business planning with the Center for Strategic and International Studies. He has coordinated foreign investment in several countries, including Russia. Handy tells RFE/RL that he did business with Putin when the acting Russian president was first vice mayor of St. Petersburg.

Handy, like McFaul, is optimistic about Russia's future under Putin, but says a strong showing in the election will not be enough for him to declare his independence from the oligarchs.

First, Handy says, Putin must deepen his popular support by addressing Russia's fledgling financial infrastructure and thereby directly benefiting all Russians with an improved economy. He says it may be misguided to suggest that Putin can confront the oligarchs before then.

"I think that's looking at Russia through the prism of an established democracy in the United States. And I think that that's a possibility, but I don't think it's a certainty. I think he still has to prove -- he has to show actual economic progress and return that touches more of the people in a more measurable way."

And Handy believes that Putin has the right credentials for improving the economy. While other experts focus on the acting president's tenure with the KGB, Handy recalls the meetings -- eight to 10 of them -- that he had with Putin when he was the first vice mayor of St. Petersburg.

Handy says that the port of St. Petersburg confronted him with the problems of inefficiency and corruption, as well as the opportunity to provide jobs and social services for thousands of Russian workers.

"This gave him more than an awareness of the economic issues facing Russia today because of the nature of St. Petersburg -- its size, its influence on Russia through its port operations."

Saunders, of the Nixon Center, is less enthusiastic about Putin's tenure in St. Petersburg, noting that it has traditionally been one of the most corrupt cities in Russia. But minutes after he denounced what he called Putin's "ruthlessness," he, too, conceded the benefits of the acting president's pragmatism.

"Mr. Putin is quite pragmatic. I think this squares with his rapid rise in Russian politics, in which he demonstrated that he was really willing to do what it takes to achieve his goals. This, I think, really, rather than Mr. Putin's alleged reformist credentials, though, can be a source of some optimism about Mr. Putin, because I think if he is a true pragmatist, we may hope that he will recognize the importance of continued economic and political reform."

Even while portraying Putin as a man focused on his own best interest, Saunders could not help declaring -- or perhaps hoping -- that the man who may be Russia's next president may be the best for the job.