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2003 & Beyond: In Russia, Putin Solidifies Power As Chechen Conflict Festers

This past year brought steady economic growth to Russia, thanks largely to the high price of oil, as President Vladimir Putin skillfully managed a delicate period in international relations while strengthening his political power domestically. RFE/RL reviews the year and looks ahead to what 2004 may have in store for Russia.

Prague, 12 December 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Russian President Vladimir Putin ends 2003 stronger than ever, his political power bolstered after this month's State Duma elections and a showdown with oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovskii that boosted his domestic popularity ratings to sky-high levels.

Three months away from presidential elections, which every commentator is certain he will win, Putin can contemplate the political landscape with quiet satisfaction.

But beneath the placid surface, there are some threatening rumbles.

Ironically, the issue that propelled Putin to power four years ago -- the conflict in Chechnya and the spread of terrorist attacks to other parts of Russia -- continues to fester, with the Kremlin appearing as impotent as ever.

Putin, who was elected on an implicit promise to settle the Chechnya issue once and for all, repeated his tough talk this year. In a speech in July, he said, "It is useless to conduct preventive work with these people. They must be flushed out of the cellars and caves where they are still hiding and they must be destroyed."

Putin boosted military spending, sent his soldiers on countless "mopping up" operations and made common cause with the United States in the global war on terrorism. But the body bags from the war-torn republic keep piling up, and the civilian casualties from suicide bombers, such as this month's blasts in Yessentuki and Moscow, continue unabated.

The summer of 2003 saw a string of deadly attacks. In August, 50 people were killed by a truck bomb at a Russian military hospital in Mozdok in North Ossetia. A month earlier, two female suicide bombers blew themselves up at an outdoor concert in Moscow, killing 15. A month before that, 17 people were killed in a bus bombing in the Caucasus.

Thomas de Waal is an analyst at the British-based Institute for War and Peace Reporting and the author of "Chechnya: Calamity in the Caucasus." He spoke to RFE/RL in August about the situation. He blamed rampant corruption in the Russian military as the biggest obstacle to peace. Despite recent presidential elections in the republic that were supposed to bring new stability, his comments would appear to still hold true today. "We have to ask ourselves the questions: Why are the rebels still fighting on, where are they getting their weapons from, how come all the main rebel leaders are still operating freely in Chechnya, almost four years after the second war began? And Chechnya is not a very large place," de Waal says. "Corruption has to be a major answer to that question, and until it's sorted out, things will just get worse in Chechnya rather than better."

De Waal, who is backed by other commentators in his view, believes military corruption in Chechnya calls into question the reliability of commanders and the extent to which they are, in fact, answerable to the Kremlin.

"I think that's a very significant factor," he says. "I think basically that the criminalization of Russian forces in Chechnya is possibly the biggest problem of all. They're dealing in the oil industry. They're basically engaged in extortion from the local population. They use violence to earn money. A lot of the 'kontraktniki' [contract soldiers] have basically gone to Chechnya not to serve their country but to make money."

On other issues, Putin this year proved himself an able tactician, ending 2003 holding the reins of power ever more firmly. In foreign affairs, Putin used international divisions over whether to invade Iraq to draw closer to France and Germany while steering clear of inflammatory rhetoric in order not to damage ties with the United States.

Once Iraqi President Saddam Hussein was toppled, Putin took pains to underscore Russia's commitment to strong political and trade ties with Washington. The administration of U.S. President George W. Bush responded to Russia's overtures by emphasizing the overall benefit of good relations with Russia, despite a difference of opinion over the Iraq war.

In domestic politics, the creation of Unified Russia as the party of power enabled the Kremlin to marginalize both the Communists and the right-of-center liberals, leaving Putin in control of the broad center.

Voters responded to Unified Russia's corporatist, law-and-order nationalist platform, as witnessed by the results of this month's Duma election. Pro-Kremlin deputies now occupy two-thirds of the chamber's seats, giving Putin unprecedented power to even change the constitution if he so chooses.

The election results were a further slap in the face for jailed oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovskii, who most analysts believe earned the Kremlin's wrath prior to his arrest by openly funding opposition political parties and speaking about his own presidential ambitions. Khodorkovskii's arrest -- although Putin has repeatedly denied it -- seemed designed to send a message to the business community not to interfere in politics.

That message was also received loud and clear by the media. At the start of 2003, TV6 became the last independent nationwide television station in Russia to be shut down. The Supreme Arbitration Court accepted a demand by oil giant LUKoil -- which held a minority of TV6 shares through a subsidiary -- that the station be closed for failing to return a profit. LUKoil itself is partly owned by the Russian government, and the Kremlin described the incident as a "business dispute." But here, too, most commentators saw a clear political subtext to the story.

As 2003 draws to a close, Russia appears to be at a crossroad.

Andrei Piontkovskii, director of the Moscow-based Center for Strategic Studies, tells RFE/RL the presidential election in March 2004 will be an important indicator of whether democratic forces are able to regroup and form a genuine opposition -- or whether Russia will continue its consolidation into a tightly controlled, authoritarian, semi-capitalist country.

"A very important question is whether the democratic opposition will succeed in posing a serious and sharp challenge to Putin and his regime, not in the way that the Union of Rightist Forces did, fighting for the 'good' Putin against the 'bad' Chekists, but by challenging the entire regime and its model of governance, which is turning the country into a police state of bureaucratic capitalism. If they manage, and if such a candidate gets 15 to 20 percent of the vote, it will be very important. It will be very important because sooner or later -- and sooner rather than later, I believe -- this regime will end up in crisis, because it is ineffective economically. And when that happens, the candidate and the political forces who mounted a challenge to Putin will be called upon," Piontkovskii said.

Skies may not stay blue forever for Putin, but right now, there are few politicians in the West who would not envy his position. Come New Year's Eve, there will plenty to toast at the Kremlin.