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Russia: Analysis From Washington -- When Words Count

Washington, 2 August 2000 (RFE/RL) -- An analysis published in Moscow of Russian President Vladimir Putin's state of the nation address suggests but does not necessarily prove that he is significantly less committed to democracy, human rights and integration with the West than was his predecessor Boris Yeltsin.

That conclusion flows from a content analysis of their respective state-of-the-nation speeches in 2000 and 1995. Prepared by the Russian newspaper "Moskovskiy komsomolets" and published in "The Moscow Times" last week, this study found that the greatest difference between Putin and his predecessor was precisely on questions involving the formation of a civil society and integration with Europe.

In his speech this year, Putin did not mention democracy or human rights at all and used the term reform only twice, a sharp departure from Yeltsin's record. In 1995, then-President Yeltsin mentioned democracy 11 times, reforms 13 times, and his commitment to human rights three times. And on the question of Europe, while Yeltsin referred to Europe and European integration 13 times, Putin did not mention that term at all.

Arguing that Russia faced similar problems in 1995 and 2000 and thus a comparison of the leaders' speeches provides a useful benchmark of what the two men think, "Moskovskiy komsomolets" ran these findings under the headline "Now Everyone Knows What Putin Wants."

These findings are fully consistent with what many analysts of the Russian scene have observed. Putin has adopted a more authoritarian style, and he is certainly less given than was Yeltsin to talking about themes like democracy, human rights, and integration popular in the West than reflecting a new and more self-confident Russian statism.

But there are three reasons to think that these findings, as impressive as they appear, may not be as definitive as the Moscow newspaper suggests.

First, Putin and Yeltsin have very different personal styles. Yeltsin simply talked more and about more things than Putin does, and consequently, a comparison of Putin's rather abbreviated remarks with Yeltsin's more extensive ones is not entirely fair to either man.

Indeed, the paper notes that in 1995, Yeltsin discussed Chechnya 18 times. Putin mentioned it only twice, but the current Russian president's involvement in that conflict suggests that he is no less interested in what is taking place there but appears to believe that his policy is best served by not discussing the war than by calling attention to it as Yeltsin did.

Second, the assertions of "Moskovskiy komsomolets" notwithstanding, the situation of Russia in 2000 is very different than the situation that country found itself in five years earlier. Not only is the Russian Federation older than it was in 1995, but Moscow and its leaders have experienced all the intervening events: a new war in Chechnya, an economic collapse, and now an oil-export-driven recovery.

Five years ago, Yeltsin shared or at least was prepared to defer to Western expectations about Russia's future development. Now, Putin has indicated in a whole variety of ways that Moscow will go its own way and make its own decisions, a shift which some Western leaders have welcomed as an indication that a more self-confident Russia may prove to be a better partner than was a Russia prepared to follow the West's lead.

And third, content analysis based on word counts alone while extremely attractive as a means of presenting information quickly and easily sometimes proves unreliable. One leader may invoke words he thinks his audience may want to hear even though he himself does not believe in them, while another leader may be deeply attached to an idea but not feel compelled to talk about it nearly as much.

Using the "Moskovskiy komsomolets" study to draw conclusions about Yeltsin rather than Putin, for example, some might be tempted to say that Yeltsin was a committed democrat and deeply supportive of human rights and integration with Europe. But an examination of some of Yeltsin's other behavior might call that conclusion into question.

Nonetheless, words do count, and by failing to include references to democracy and human rights in his speech, Putin has sent a signal that he intends to lead Russia in a very different direction than Yeltsin did.