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Russia: Panel Ponders Political Future

With just under two weeks to go before special elections in Russia, commentators, special interests and western officials alike are struggling to predict the country's near-term and future course, at the hands of what by all appearances will be an electoral win by acting President Vladimir Putin. But as RFE/RL's Lisa McAdams reports, even this far along, the questions outweigh the answers among long time watchers of Russia and her policies:

Washington, 15 March 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Two leading centers of Harvard University sponsored Monday's panel at the National Press Club in Washington, which brought together Russian and American experts to provide insight into Russia's acting president, Vladimir Putin.

Former Prime Minister Sergei Stepashin, who worked closely with Putin when he was Chief of Russia's Security Service and Security Council Secretary, delivered the keynote address. In it, the now Duma deputy and chairman of the Duma's corruption commission, elaborated on the appeal of Putin, whom Stepashin described as "able-bodied," "predictable" and "tough." Stepashin then dealt largely with questions surrounding Russia's military campaign in breakaway Chechnya.

Stepashin said that from a military perspective it is "impossible" to backtrack now, no matter how politically expedient he said such a move might prove for Russia. He also said the bigger challenges lie ahead, in the question of how Chechnya is to be organized following what he called a certain "victory" for Russia.

Stepashin said he believed that for the next two years Chechnya would need to be, "federally governed." And he said the sooner the federal government can provide an environment for civilians to come back, the sooner Russia would be able to speak about the first steps of stabilizing the situation there.

Prior to Stepashin's remarks, several leading Russian experts discussed the upcoming special elections and its implications.

Tim Colton is the director of the Davis Center for Russian Studies at Harvard University. He spoke to implications of the elections for future democracy in Russia, which he characterized as "mixed."

Colton said that the real answer of Russia's democratic fate may lie in what Putin really means when he talks about a "strong state."

"The problem though of course is that a strong state, if not also a democratic or responsive state, can just be a codeword for dictatorship and Russians have seen all that before. I don't believe that its possible to tell from Putin's words what he really means by a strong state."

Colton said U.S. officials could wish things into it, but he said he did not believe one could definitively tell at this point what Putin means from the words themselves.

Colton also cautioned the West against the danger of exaggerated expectations in Putin. He then concluded his remarks by saying that anxiety and apprehension are on the rise in Russia, due not to what he said people believe Putin will do if elected, but stemming more from all that is still unknown about his policies.

Sergei Karaganov, the chairman of the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy in Moscow, said there is one "known" quantity of Putin's policy -- that being his stated goal of revitalizing the Russian state and Russian economy. Here's how Karaganov said he sees that playing out, with regard to relations with the West:

"That means probably, if he delivers on his word, less activist Russia on foreign policy and more concentration of the government on the real business of Russia. And that is the business of getting Russia out of its crisis, which could become its last crisis because everybody understands that we are on the brink of disintegration if we fail this time with reforms."

The elections are also being widely watched as to how they could affect future U.S.-Russian security relations. Graham Allison, director of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard, echoed his colleagues when he said that too much is "unknown" to speak with any certainty. However, he took it a step further to say that the real concern, as regards security, will stem from what he called the serious lack of "checks and balances" on the reach of Putin's power and influence.

But Vyacheslav Nikonov disagreed that Putin's rule could usher in a new era of "authoritarianism," as Allison and others have suggested. Nikonov is the director of the "Politika" foundation in Moscow and a former Duma deputy. He said it was really hard to imagine anyone having ultimate influence and control in a place, "as messy as Russia."

"The orders may go somewhere. You may press some button in the Kremlin expecting that the lights will go on somewhere else and you will find out that the lamps have already been stolen, or that the wires are not there. So, in my view, of course this is a great guarantee (against) any authoritarian regime in Russia, it will never happen."

Nikonov also spoke to the issue of how Putin rose to the top in Russian politics. He put it succinctly, saying, "Putin's a winner, which is what matters most." Only after he wins, Nikonov said, will the world find out his plans for the presidency. As Nikonov put it, "not even he (Putin) knows the answer to the current question of who is Mr. Putin?"