On March 26, acting Russian President Vladimir Putin is expected to easily become the full-fledged president of a nation that is rich in resources but is burdened by a shaky economy. Little was known about him when he was appointed by his predecessor, Boris Yeltsin, on New Year's Eve. And little more is known about him now. But a forum of experts from the U.S. and Russia offers some hints to how he can be expected to address Russia's economy.
Washington, 15 March 2000 (RFE/RL) -- A diverse group of Russian and American policy experts agrees that acting Russian President Vladimir Putin is politically a conservative, but a liberal on economic issues.
This conclusion was offered at a forum in Washington on Monday, 13 days before Russia's presidential election, which Putin is expected to win handily.
The experts, convened by Harvard University, covered a variety of topics, including how they expect Putin to handle his country's fragile economy. Those at the symposium said they believe Putin's liberal approach to economics was laudable. But not all experts are certain that enough is known about the acting president to anticipate his approach to the economy.
One panel member was Sergei Markov, director of Moscow's Institute for Political Studies. He called Putin both authoritarian and democratic at the same time. Another participant was Vataniar Yagya, a deputy to the St. Petersburg Legislative Assembly, who worked with Putin when the acting president was deputy mayor in that city.
Yagya said Putin's mixture of liberalism and conservatism is like that of Benjamin Disraeli. He quoted the 19th-century British prime minister as saying he was a conservative about keeping good things from the past and a reformer when getting rid of the bad.
Many of the participants in two panel discussions had high praise for Putin's accomplishments when he worked in St. Petersburg. There, they say, he perfected his abilities as a Western-style manager. And since coming to Moscow, where he was named acting president on December 31, he has managed to build a strong coalition of divergent groups behind his candidacy for the presidency.
In particular, his prosecution of the war in Chechnya has won him great popular support. But Timothy Colter, a Harvard professor of Russian studies, cautions that Putin may be surprised that he cannot always expect to have universal appeal.
"To some extent, this has been a coalition based, I think, on the illusion of common interest, or of universal, society-wide interest. And governing is not really going to be like that."
Still, the belief of most speakers was that Putin is the right man to improve Russia's economy. This opinion was perhaps best expressed by Sergei Karaganov, chairman of the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy in Moscow, who spoke in English.
"First of all, Putin coming to power is good news for [the] economy. Second, it is good news, and third, it is good news, and fourth, there are question marks."
Karaganov says Putin will bring stability and what he called "predictability" to the Russian economy. Karaganov's "question marks" deal with whether Putin can persuade Russians and foreign investors to trust Russian financial institutions.
The forum concluded with a luncheon address by Sergei Stepashin, chairman of the Corruption Commission of the Russian state Duma. Stepashin was asked about the recurring theme of the forum -- how Putin could be authoritarian and democratic at the same time.
Stepashin, speaking through a translator, said the word "authoritarian" may be an exaggeration. Rather, he said, Putin is merely "harsh." Stepashin said Putin's liberalism is confined to his approach to economics.
Stepashin and other speakers agreed that Putin's liberalism does not appear to mean that the government will manage Russia's economy. But they expect that as president in his own right, Putin will work hard to make his country a more secure place to conduct business.
Putin does not impress everyone, however -- at least not yet. Some economists say it is still too early to determine where he would take the economy once he is elected president in his own right.
Astrid Tuminez is an expert on the Russian Economy at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York City. She cautions that Putin has been acting president for only three months.
She told RFE/RL that the acting president clearly is prepared to establish what she called "the right atmosphere" for improving investment in Russia.
Tuminez says Putin's experience in St. Petersburg is not a good indicator of his grasp of economics. She notes that he was not in charge of the city's economy -- Mayor Anatoly Sobchak was -- but that Putin was merely a "facilitator" for the mayor.
She stresses that Putin must concern himself with more than just Russia's economy. Therefore observers must wait to see whom he chooses as finance minister before deciding whether Putin is on the right track
"I am very skeptical that Putin understands very much about, you know, the economy. And so I would want to see a strong team in place, because he will have other issues of governance to deal with."
In particular, Tuminez says she believes that the war in Chechnya is not likely to end anytime soon. If that is the case, Putin may have to contend with an increasingly impatient populace at home, while placating an increasingly uneasy Europe and America.