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Published: Saturday, 3/31/2001

Putin gains support in 1st year, but has little success

It's been a year since Russia's former security chief Vladimir Putin was elected president.

His single undisputed accomplishment has been political stability in Russia.

But that may not be for long.

In his first major government reshuffle, President Putin replaced Yeltsin-era defense and interior ministers with his own younger cronies and fired the longtime nuclear energy minister. He told the media he did this to make Russia a more effective military power and marketer of nuclear technology.

Fortunately, his ominous marshal desires might not be fulfilled anytime soon, as Mr. Putin's rather mediocre record indicates.

He has failed to deliver on his campaign promises, most notably, to win the war in Chechnya and curb corruption and crime.

However, more than 70 percent of the electorate - as many as ever before - still support him. Pro-Kremlin media refer to them as “Putin majority” and Russia's only hope for survival as a state.

He has all but monopolized Russian media and used it to brainwash the populace. It worked because he claimed and - in the eyes of an average Russian - got credit for economic stabilization that occurred due to high oil prices that boosted oil export revenues. The devaluation of the ruble made imports prohibitive and, thus, stimulated local production.

All that would still have happened even if Mr. Putin weren't in charge.

In fact, he wasted a precious opportunity to use this favorable time to begin the long-overdue land reform that would let individuals, most importantly farmers and developers, actually own land. And he failed to reform Russia's atrocious financial system.

As a result of this inactivity, Russia failed to attract investors and slow down capital flight to offshore banks, which makes its economic future bleak.

That's not to mention delays in beginning a judiciary reform that would change an unconstitutional practice of arresting people on prosecutors' orders. Thousands of people have been arrested in that way and have had to wait for months for a court trial, which ends in their conviction in more than 90 per cent of the cases.

But Mr. Putin deserves some credit for stabilizing the country politically.

His exaggerated patriotism and handouts to have-nots - notably superficial increases of salaries and pensions to state employees - keep Russia's nationalist hotheads and Communists in check.

He has significantly limited the former free-for-all rule of local governors in many of Russia's 89 provinces, reviving hopes that law and order may prevail in Russia some day.

And he has incited persecution of several Russian financial and business tycoons, some of whom - such as financial and media magnate Boris Berezovsky - have long annoyed the generally impoverished public to the point of hysteria.

As a career security officer, he has brought ex-spies, counterintelligence officers, and military commanders to pivotal civilian positions. He has spearheaded remilitarization efforts and stepped up the Kremlin's aggressive, anti-NATO and anti-U.S. foreign policy.

A common notion in the United States holds that he's unconsciously sacrificing Russia's economic interest to see that Russia re-emerges as a global challenge to the United States.

I would argue that he consciously revives the Russian paranoia of the West. He needs it as justification for his campaign to militarize Russia.

It takes millions of bureaucrats to remilitarize the huge country's economy and run it from the Kremlin. Far fewer bureaucrats are needed in a self-sustaining market system.

While it's easy to blame him for siding with the bureaucracy and stalling reforms, it's nothing new.

The Kremlin's power over Russia at the expense of the judiciary and legislative branches has long been Russia's trademark, whatever its rulers called themselves: royalists, Communists, or democrats.

So were mass poverty, militarized economy, and aggressive foreign policy.

Unfortunately, it looks like it's going to stay that way at least as long as Mr. Putin is president.

Mike Sigov, a Russian-born journalist, is a staff writer for The Blade. Email him at msigov@theblade.com.



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