Vladimir Putin is blowing cold and bearing down. The acting president wants to restore competence and efficiency to Russia’s government. Like many Russians, he wants a more ordered society, one with less anarchy and less liberty as well. Unlike the sick and feckless Boris Yeltsin, Putin is energetic and persevering. In his brief time in office–six months as prime minister, one month as acting president–he has established his authority in his relations with political movements, with the media, with the military, with the former Soviet republics and with the West.
Putin belongs to no political party. The Unity Party that won almost 24 percent of the votes in December’s parliamentary election is a Kremlin creation to support Putin. It is a party with no ideology and no platform beyond support for Putin’s “firm hand.” The deal Unity worked with the parliamentary Communists to elect a Communist speaker and control the key committees left Putin with maximum control and maximum freedom of action. He owes nothing to the new opposition and nothing to his new allies.
The deal between Unity and the Communists is aimed at curbing the influence of former Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov, whose supporters comprise the third-largest bloc in the parliament. Primakov became the Kremlin’s enemy number one while still prime minister, when he set tax police and prosecutors after Boris Berezovsky, the media-energy-banking-airline-auto tycoon who bankrolled Yeltsin’s 1996 election campaign. That bit of bravado got Primakov fired and the prosecutor suspended. But Primakov out of office formed a political alliance with Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov, one of the few people in Russia who can fund a presidential campaign without Kremlin support. To Berezovsky, the ex-premier was still a threat.
Putin was hired as prime minister last May to destroy that threat. Kremlin insiders saw Putin, a career KGB officer and head of the Federal Security Service (FSB), as the anti-Primakov who would have the drop on his uppity predecessor. So far, he has rewarded their judgment.
With Berezovsky’s backing, Putin has completely taken over the role Primakov once played, that of the “firm hand” bringing bring order to a country unhinged by political upheavals and financial collapse.
Putin has used the media to great effect. With the exception of outlets controlled by the City of Moscow or by Luzhkov’s ally, media-banking-communications tycoon Vladimir Gusinsky, print and broadcast outlets have turned on Primakov and cheered for Putin with tabloid-style sensationalism and Soviet-style unanimity. And Soviet-style tactics have entered the media war as well. Earlier this month, Interior Ministry police tried to throw a television journalist who had attacked Berezovsky into a psychiatric clinic the ministry allegedly controls. Word of the raid leaked and the journalist is now reportedly in hiding.
Putin has rallied the military to his side. He has given the general staff a free hand in Chechnya. He has defended their cruelties publicly and removed their incompetents privately. He has called for expanding their budgets, to spend more on pay and weaponry. The threat of a political movement among the officer corps, which not long ago was attracted to men like Lev Rokhlin and Aleksandr Lebed, seems over.
At last week’s summit of the Commonwealth of Independent States, Putin showed a firm hand to the former Soviet republics as well. He abandoned the false collegiality of previous summits, meeting bilaterally with each of the eleven presidents. Cooperation is a good idea, he told them with a dash of menace, because “millions of Russians live in the territory of the former Union.”
With the West, Putin is increasingly rough, even contemptuous. In Chechnya, Interior Ministry troops arrested (and as of this writing still hold) Sergei Babitsky, a Russian journalist employed by the American government-funded Radio Liberty. The arrest apparently occurred January 15, when Babitsky disappeared near Djohar, but as late as January 28 Putin’s spokesman angrily denied all knowledge of Babitsky’s whereabouts. In Moscow, the prosecutor investigating a kickback and money laundering scandal that may implicate Boris Yeltsin and his daughter rejected a Swiss warrant for the arrest of a key figure in the affair. Extradition of Pavel Borodin, the former Kremlin property administrator who set up the allegedly fraudulent contracts that are central to the case, would be “unconstitutional.”
Although Putin’s election in March to a four-year presidential term seems ensured, his time as Russia’s firm hand may not last much longer than Primakov’s. The war in Chechnya may drag on. The economy may retreat, or not advance. The tycoons that brought Putin to power may withdraw or moderate their support. The crime and corruption that have weakened the state are very likely to persist. The Putin presidency may peak at its beginning.