WHO EXACTLY is Vladimir Putin, Russia's new president?
Is he a pragmatic straight-arrow who can be trusted, as leaders in cities from Washington to London would have us believe? Or is he a career KGB officer who is still on a mission, trying to resurrect the old Soviet Union?
There are no easy answers to these questions. But as President Clinton prepares to meet with Mr. Putin in Moscow next month, Washington ought to do some unsentimental stock-taking.
There is a lot to like about Mr. Putin. He is energetic, studied and well-organized. Those qualities are much needed after nine years of Boris N. Yeltsin's meandering.
Despite his imperfections, though, Russia's first post-communist president had one immense strength: He was a committed democrat who understood the enormity of Soviet crimes and wanted Russia to make a clean break with its totalitarian past.
Mr. Putin never went through that conversion. He may not be a communist, but neither is he bothered by the crimes of communism. As a career KGB officer, he continues to speak highly of Felix Dzerzhinsky and others who perfected the Soviet machine of repression. At the May 9 Victory Day parade, he addressed participants as "comrades" and praised their fight for "the great Soviet Motherland."
In recent days, Mr. Putin has won plaudits from Western observers for an administrative reorganization that weakens the authority of Russia's overbearing regional governors. He is consolidating power.
But if that is seen as a good and long-overdue move, it has to be balanced against the Putin government's attempt to muzzle an independent media company that has been critical of the Kremlin leadership. The word "troubling" doesn't begin to describe the ominous portent of a recent raid by gun-toting SWAT teams on Media-Most, which owns the gutsy NTV television network, the liberal Segodnya daily and a Newsweek-type weekly called Itogi.
The authorities' justifications have been so weak and illogical that it's clear the raid was politically motivated. And the silence from the Kremlin suggests the attack on the strongly critical media outlets was carried out with the new president's blessings.
This is bad news that should not be sugarcoated in the West.