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2000 In Review: Putin's Policy Aimed At Strengthening The State

Russian president Vladimir Putin used his first year in office to create stronger state, even at the expense of some basic liberties. Putin, who started the year as a relative unknown, moved quickly to restrict Russia's wealthy businessmen, regional leaders and media outlets as a way of distancing himself from Boris Yeltsin's chaotic rule and consolidating his own power. One notable failure was in Chechnya, where guerilla-style warfare continues. RFE/RL correspondent Sophie Lambroschini looks back on the year 2000.

Moscow, 19 December 2000 (RFE/RL) -- When 2000 draws to a close, Russian president Vladimir Putin will have ended his first year in office.

Putin, an obscure intelligence officer in the KGB, was elevated to fame last year when president Boris Yeltin named him prime minister. A few months later he became only the country's second post-Communist president following Yeltsin's surprise resignation on the last day of the year. Three months after that, in March, he was overwhelmingly elected president in his own right in the first round.

Yet aside from some tough talk on Chechnya, there were few signs to gauge what kind of policies Putin would purse as president.

Now, a year later, a clearer picture is emerging of a man who favors what he calls a "dictatorship of the law," his own slogan for a stronger and more effective state that Putin claims is needed to safeguard economic and political freedoms.

He set out his vision for a strong state clearly in a "state of the nation" address in July:

"The debate over the relation between strength and freedom is very old -- as old as the world. Even today, it continues to generate speculation about [the nature of] dictatorship and authoritarianism. Our position is extremely clear: only a strong, effective -- if someone doesn't like the word strong, let's say effective -- state and a democratic state is in a position to defend civic, political and economic freedoms."

Central to creating a strong state has been Putin's policy of trying to limit the power of Russia's super-wealthy business tycoons, known locally as oligarchs. The offensive began this summer with a series of raids by tax and law-enforcement officials.

While the influence of powerful businessmen does appear to have decreased since the Yeltsin years, the anti-oligarch offensive had to rely on some Yeltsin-style behind-the-scenes bargaining, mostly over taxes, with big-time businesses like Lukoil and Norilsk Nickel.

There are also lingering suspicions that some businessmen -- for instance aluminum and oil baron Roman Abramovich -- may have received preferential treatment.

Putin has also moved quickly to rein in Russia's often independent-minded regional governors and leaders. Putin appointed seven special envoys - most of them with a military or security service background - to control regional administrations. Another tool - a new law - makes it easier to suspend the governors.

While the special envoys have little direct power, the policy has scared many governors into closer cooperation with the Kremlin.

The centralization reform, however, revealed its weakness this autumn by failing to resolve a major social crisis: tens of thousands of people in the Far East were left without heating in sub-zero temperatures.

Putin also made clear that strengthening the state means controlling the media. According to the official view, the state's voice has been strangled by privately owned media companies serving the political interests of the oligarchs. Last July, Putin made clear that he sees the media as a danger:

"Lack of economic efficiency makes media to a large extent dependent on commercial and political interests of their sponsors. It makes it possible to use the media to settle accounts with competitors, and sometimes to even turn the [media companies] into instruments of mass disinformation, [as a] means to fight the state."

RFE/RL Chechnya correspondent Andrei Babitsky was one of the first to feel the effects of the clampdown on journalists.

Babitsky was detained by Russian forces in Chechnya early this year. He was then charged and later found guilty by authorities for allegedly traveling with false documents.

Media and press-freedom organizations around the world criticized the detention and the trial, insisting that Babitsky's only "crime" was reporting objectively on the war. The detention effectively scared journalists and prevented them from independent reporting in Chechnya.

Another example of action taken against the media was the offensive against Vladimir Gusinsky's Media Most Group (that controls the NTV television channel).

NTV fell out of political favor last year when it failed to support the Kremlin before parliamentary and presidential elections. The government has instituted a number of court actions to break Media Most's power, including issuing an international warrant for Gusinsky's arrest. Andrei Richter is an expert for Moscow's Law and Media Institute. He explains that the Kremlin's aims are pragmatic:

"The aim of the new policy is to consolidate support for the Kremlin among media outlets and to improve the Kremlin's image in those media that are not 'loyal' to the president. And the main method is that of the carrot and the stick."

But if Putin has succeeded in some of his aims to curtail the oligarchs, the media and other potential sources of opposition, his major failure has been in Chechnya. In spite of Putin's professed toughness, the Russian military has failed to bring the breakaway republic fully under its control. Rebels regularly plant bombs in towns that are "officially" under Russian control, while Moscow generals continue a violent offensive against civilians.

Looking ahead to 2001, Russians can expect more of the same.

Putin's approval rating among ordinary citizens is over 60 percent, indicating many people welcome talk of stronger state control, such as they experienced under the former Soviet Union.

Putin in turn knows how to exploit these desires. This month, for example, the State Duma approved a bill, originally suggested by Putin, to restore the old Soviet national anthem. The bill enjoys wide popular support from many people who still look back fondly on the Soviet period.

And Putin has been boosted this year by a surprisingly strong economy, which grew more than 7 percent.

Experts warn much of the increase can be attributed to higher prices for commodities such as oil and not to the structural, liberal reforms Putin planned this year but has not yet put in place.