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Jewish World Review April 4, 2000 /28 Adar II, 5760

Michael Barone

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President-elect Putin offers a basis for hopes–and for fears --
MOSCOW–In looking at foreign elections, Americans tend to believe there must be a good alternative, an ideal candidate who will serve his country well and get on well with the United States. Bill Clinton has hailed Vladimir Putin, who won the Russian presidency with 53 percent of the vote March 26, as such a figure–someone who has said many of the right things about economic reform, the rule of law, and international relations. But in Russia, the picture looks more mixed. Putin's Russia looks likely to be what Fareed Zakaria has called an illiberal democracy: a nation that may move toward more economic freedom and away from corruption, but that also seems headed toward a prickly nationalism and away from freedom of expression, a Russia more hospitable to foreign investment but more hostile to domestic critics.

As an electoral democracy, Russia has made great strides. The vote count was mostly fair, and Putin seems in line with public opinion, a "mirror," as Jamestown Foundation analyst Elizabeth Teague puts it. He has been careful to avoid commitment on the issues. He set up a policy think tank in December, eight days after Yeltsin resigned in his favor and four days after the Unity Party set up by his backers won a second-place 23 percent in the elections for the Duma, far ahead of the 13 percent for the Fatherland-All Russia slate headed by former Premier Yevgeni Primakov and Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov, Yeltsin's major non-Communist rivals. But think tank economist Vladimir Mau talks of little more than eliminating internal trade barriers and reducing "controls which are equal to extortion" on small businesses–worthy goals, but falling short of the guarantees of property rights that Russia needs. Putin owes much to oligarch Boris Berezovsky, whose ORT television network savaged Primakov and Luzhkov and championed Putin from October to December, and has few loyalists around him with any experience in national government. One can be hopeful but only guardedly optimistic.

The Chechnya effect. That seems to be the mood of those who elected him. Putin voters interviewed on Election Day in Klin, in the countryside outside Moscow, were quick to hail him as "young and energetic" but had little to say about what he would do, except to hope "he will make life better for my grandchildren." Interestingly, none brought up Putin's role in the military campaign in Chechnya, which was vital in raising his popularity last fall. Last September, four buildings were blown up in Moscow and southern Russia; Putin blamed the bombings on Chechen terrorists and launched the brutal assault on Chechnya. His poll ratings soared, while those of Primakov, under heavy assault from ORT, fell. Putin's Unity Party was launched, and as it swept past Fatherland and the market-oriented Union of Right Forces (SPS), both Primakov and SPS leaders Sergei Kiriyenko and Boris Nemtsov dropped plans for a presidential candidacy. The key to his victory was the elimination of those non-Communist rivals: Putin otherwise would certainly not have won a majority in the first round and was far from assured of getting into a runoff.

But were the bombings really the work of Chechens? Veteran Russia watcher David Satter of the Hudson Institute argues that the bombings were so professionally carried out, with explosives made in only one factory in Russia, that they look like the work of the FSB–the successor of the KGB–which Putin headed until August. Journalists who questioned the official version found themselves under attack. Computer hackers destroyed an issue of Novaya Gazeta focusing on the subject a week before the election. Alexander Khinshtein of Moskovsky Komsomolets was summoned by police to take a psychiatric exam. Most notoriously, Andrei Babitsky of Radio Liberty was traded by Russian soldiers to a Chechen group in January and, when released in March, was attacked by Putin himself as disloyal. Critical treatment in the Media-Most group's newspaper Segodnya and the NTV television puppet-show satire, Kukly, has been followed by attacks charging that their owner, oligarch Vladimir Gusinsky, is a citizen of Israel and threatening that he will lose control of Media-Most. "There will be some redistribution of its property," said Gusinsky's rival Berezovsky in an interview in the Moscow Times just before the election. While Russian reporters tend to shrug off these events, American journalists here profess alarm at such intimidation and argue that a hostile takeover of NTV could significantly reduce the flow of information in a country where the few television networks sway public opinion.

Russians both pro- and anti-Putin suggest that he may be Russia's equivalent of former Chilean President Augusto Pinochet, who reduced corruption and revived the economy but at a considerable cost in civil liberties."The stronger the state, the stronger the individual," Putin has said, and Russia in some ways surely needs a stronger state. But against the backdrop of Russian history, the words have a certain chill.

JWR contributor Michael Barone is a columnist at U.S. News & World Report and the author of the biennialAlmanac of American Politics. Send your comments to him by clicking here.


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03/02/00: Will unions rule? Indispensable to Gore, labor may be the campaign's secret winner
02/15/00: A reformers' party
01/03/00: The voters rule: In Manchester, Mexico, and Moscow, an imperfect system works
01/19/00: The era of Big Promises
12/08/99: Welcome to the world of 'good enough'
11/2/99: Just saying no
11/12/99: Money talks, as it should
10/28/99: Mexico votes – for real
10/03/99: Going against type
09/28/99: The unions go public
08/31/99: China's strait flush
08/25/99: The first two contests
08/03/99: Paddling upstream
07/08/99: Taking Hillary seriously
06/22/99: Trying the lawyers
06/07/99: Facts on the ground

©2000, Michael Barone