Stepping out of the shadows; Russia: The new acting president is an enigma. But recent actions may signal the direction in which he will lead the nation.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

MOSCOW -- Madeleine K. Albright was sizing up Russia's new president. Who is this 47-year-old man who seemingly came out of nowhere and is now running the Kremlin, the government, the world's second-largest nuclear power?

Vladimir V. Putin has been acting president for a month and, after elections March 26, is highly likely to be settling down for a four-year term. The U.S. secretary of state, in Moscow last week for a meeting on the Middle East, had a meeting with Putin that was scheduled for one hour and ran to three. Albright said she found him to be "a very well-informed person and a good interlocutor, obviously a Russian patriot."

But the question she hasn't answered is this: What is to be expected from a man who was barely known before Boris N. Yeltsin picked him to be prime minister in August?

Putin is something of a blank slate. Russians know that he had a career as a spy in East Germany, and he had a second career as the No. 2 man in the city government of St. Petersburg after the fall of communism. They know that in 1996 he was recruited to a job in the Kremlin and later served a year as director of the Federal Security Service.

They know that he tried to show his human side on television last week,appearing with his dog -- not the Doberman that might have been expected, but a white poodle.

Beyond that, they know that he is young and vigorous, that he projects an image of capability and toughness, and that he has been forcefully prosecuting the war in Chechnya.

But for the rest, there has been room for speculation about a man who has never been tested in the political arena. He's a smart reformer, or he's a puppet of oligarchs; he's an unreconstructed Soviet-era secret police operative, or he's a realist who understands where Russia's interests lie; he's uncomfortable using the gangster jargon that brings him attention, or he's the kind of boss for whom such talk comes naturally.

"Everybody is engaged in psychobabble about him," Albright said. "Everybody ought to watch what he does."

In the six months since Putin came to power as prime minister, several broad themes that help define him have begun to emerge, and the pace has quickened since he ascended to the presidency with Yeltsin's resignation Dec. 31.

His treasury bolstered by the rise in worldwide oil prices, Putin has vastly improved Russia's record on social spending.

The party with which he is associated, Unity, struck a deal with the Communists in parliament over the speaker's post and committee leadership positions -- an abrupt change of course for the Kremlin.

The Federal Security Service, or FSB, is riding high, and there appears to be a new obsession with secret agents and espionage -- both Russian and foreign.

The war in Chechnya grinds on, and the army is prospering.

Here's a broader look at these themes:

Social spending

After the collapse of the ruble in August 1998, the economy stubbornly refused to follow suit, and the weak ruble helped spur production. Oil prices kept going up, and Russia, as an oil-producing nation, reaped the benefits.

This year, for the first time in a decade, welfare programs were financed in full. Putin raised pensions 20 percent as of Feb. 1, and although in real terms they are below where they were before the collapse, the government is paying them on time. Wage arrears, a stubborn problem throughout the 1990s, have been slashed.

Putin has made the right and popular moves. Two difficulties loom: the cost of the war in Chechnya and a likely drop this year in oil prices to $20 a barrel from $28.

Politics

Yeltsin had an unremitting hostility toward the Communists, and much of his success came from outwitting them time after time. The Communist Party, which regularly receives about 30 percent of the votes in elections, has been on the outside looking in since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Putin has changed that. Unity, the party created to support him, struck a power-sharing deal in the Duma, or lower house of parliament, with the Communists. Outraged liberals, who had been busily proclaiming their support for Putin, got nothing -- and walked out.

"To look for logic in the actions of the Kremlin is senseless, because they're absolutely destructive and illogical," Boris Nemtsov, one of the outraged liberals, told the newspaper Obshchaya Gazeta. Yeltsin, he said, would have managed to manipulate the Duma in such a way that his opponents wouldn't even have realized they were being manipulated.

Putin, by contrast, has bluntly alienated members who had hoped to support him.

The "myth" of the acting president's competence as a political leader, Nemtsov said, stemmed from the fact that no one knew him.

"The more we come to understand Putin," he said, "the fewer the illusions."

But Gavriil Popov, the former mayor of Moscow, wrote in the same newspaper that the deal in parliament wasn't a blunder at all. Rather, he said, it was a move to bring the Communists into the fold, to put an end to the mindless battles of the past decade and try to create a better consensus.

It's unlikely, in any case, that the move will do much to hurt Putin's chances in the March elections. Polls show his support slipping somewhat, but he holds a forbidding lead over any rivals. And he is so strong that he does not need to worry about finding political allies to help him through the campaign.

Yet, behind the scenes, there's a familiar Kremlin struggle going on. Anatoly Chubais, the one-time reformer and head of the electric utility company, is maneuvering for power against Boris Berezovsky, the car-sales magnate who always seemed to have Yeltsin's ear. These two have been at it a long time, and given that they are two of the most widely disliked men in Russia, their not-very-private grappling takes some of the shine off Putin's fresh-scrubbed image.

The security state

Russia's "special services" are flourishing in the new atmosphere. Billboards remind residents to call the FSB or the police should they see anything suspicious. E-mail is filtered through FSB equipment, with the cost borne by Internet providers.

The police tried to throw one journalist, Alexander Khinshtein, into a psychiatric hospital. A Radio Liberty reporter in Chechnya, Andrei Babitsky, was detained incommunicado for two weeks, and then, strangely, handed over to masked men who may or may not have been Chechen rebels.

Last week, Putin shrugged off Babitsky's treatment, saying the reporter participated in the exchange "voluntarily." Nothing has been heard from Babitsky since the handover 10 days ago; Russian authorities insist that he is alive. Radio Liberty journalists said Friday that they think he may be in the hands of Russia's "special services."

When the Independent, a British newspaper, reported that a Chechen video, obtained in Turkey, shows a captured Russian military intelligence officer saying that his agency had blown up apartment houses in Moscow in September, the FSB called in the paper's Moscow bureau chief for a full day of questioning.

Kremlin officials have talked about building an "information blockade" around Chechnya and told the Russian press that it has a patriotic duty to report the government's version of events.

"It just seems the methods being used are getting more and more Soviet-like," says Chrystyna Lapychak of the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists.

There's also a greater obsession with foreign intelligence agencies. Reporters with American and European news services working in Chechnya were accused of being tools of Western spies. Moscow announced that it had "exposed" 65 foreign agents working in Russia in 1999. Russia and Poland just expelled a handful of each other's diplomats over espionage, with the Russians saying they believed that Poland's actions were being directed from London.

Putin has made no secret of his fondness for the KGB's successor agency and has brought many of his old colleagues into the government, in a variety of agencies.

The army

The war in Chechnya has cost the lives of more than 1,000 Russian soldiers, but few officers are complaining. In the first war, in 1994-1996, the army believed that it was being stabbed in the back by weak-willed politicians in Moscow. Now it's payback time. Careers are being made, and military spending is soaring.

In January, the army announced that it is calling up 20,000 reservists, an extraordinary move to make right before an election. The call-up suggests that the war is not going as well as the official version would have it. The army promised that the reservists would not serve in the war zone, but there are plenty of skeptics.

"If they go to Chechnya, they'll be cannon fodder," says Vyacheslav Izmailov, a retired army colonel who writes about military affairs.

But the army is getting what it wants these days. It would take a major disaster to change its happy relationship with the Kremlin.

Putin has also signed a decree reinstating Soviet-style civil defense training in secondary schools, a move that critics fear will lead to a general militarization of society.

Their only consolation is that there is no money for such training and that Kremlin decrees have a way of never being put into practice. Putin has talked about that, too -- he says it's time for stronger state control over the vast bureaucracy that governs Russia.

Pub Date: 2/13/00

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