Putin's presidency- Quiet control, diminished dissent

Sunday, March 14, 2004

MOSCOW -- Vladimir Putin, who is certain to win today's presidential election, came to power in one of the most astonishing scenes of Russia's long political melodrama, quickly changing the show into a shadow play.

Since the mid-1980s, Russian politics had been filled with ideological ferment, policy twists and colorful figures. Today Russians have Putin's cool, firm managerial style: a small circle of circumspect men in gray suits making decisions with little open public discussion, while policy-making bodies such as the parliament have been marginalized or tamed into a supportive chorus.

Critics say it marks the return of Soviet-type authoritarianism and reflects Putin's years as a KGB operative. But such complaints get washed away by the flood of approval for Putin from Russians exhausted by years of anxiety.

His rise to the presidency upon Yeltsin's resignation on Dec. 31, 1999, was abrupt. He made fiscal responsibility a priority, promising to repay Russia's enormous international debt in full and on time. He pushed successfully for tax reform, which swelled government revenue and enticed back foreign investors who had been scared off by the 1998 economic collapse.

The reforms and high world prices for oil, Russia's key export earner, produced steady economic growth and the base for a small but growing middle-class.

The Chechnya war that Putin began in 1999 while still prime minister continues in a violent stalemate of daily fatal rebel attacks on Russian forces.

Putin for years has stressed that major combat in Chechnya is over, and Russian television shows little to contradict that assertion.

After the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, Putin was quick to offer support to the United States and did not object to Washington setting up bases in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, former Soviet republics that Russia traditionally regards as part of its sphere of influence.

That posture won him praise as a leader flexible enough to overcome Russia's long-standing suspicion of the West, and it boosted the relations he had assiduously cultivated with Britain and the United States.

It also strengthened him in portraying the Chechnya conflict as an anti-terrorist action rather than a war, and Western governments stopped demanding he rein in his troops and negotiate with the rebels.

The disappearance of independent television channels inclined to challenge the Kremlin is a striking characteristic of the Putin era.

The channels' closures or takeovers by state-connected companies were widely seen as the result of a Kremlin campaign directed by Putin or at least approved by him, although he contends that the changes had a strictly commercial basis.

Putin has said little about his KGB days but appears to have joined it more for adventure than out of ideology. He is generally unrevealing about where he stood when his country was under communist dictatorship, except to tell biographers: "For better or worse, I was not a dissident."

Putin's home life reinforces the impression that he dislikes revealing himself; his wife, Lyudmila, and two daughters are nearly invisible to the public. The announcement in December that the family Labrador had puppies brought significant news coverage as a rare glimpse of the family's life.

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