Publication: Fortnight in Review Volume: 6 Issue: 7

Putin’s March 26 presidential election victory elicited the standard outpouring of congratulations from leaders around the world. Accenting the positive, international observers suggested that the younger and more energetic Putin might make a more reliable partner on the international stage than had his sickly and increasingly erratic and unpredictable predecessor, former President Boris Yeltsin. Western leaders in particular called on Putin to move Russia firmly in the direction of greater economic and political reform. Not surprisingly, however, they linked exhortations of that type with a call for the Kremlin to at last end the bloodshed in Chechnya and to begin allowing international aid and human rights groups into the region. French President Jacques Chirac, for example, wrote in a letter to Putin that France remains “preoccupied… with human rights and the humanitarian situation in Chechnya, which has aroused legitimate worries in Europe and in particular in [France].”

Indeed, the enduring concerns expressed by Western leaders over Chechnya appeared to reflect an underlying anxiety about the Russian president-elect’s aims and motivations more generally. The Clinton administration, which had been so lavish in showering praise upon Putin earlier this year, took a cautious approach to the election of the still largely unknown Russian leader. In a congratulatory telephone call to Putin, U.S. President Bill Clinton reportedly called on the Kremlin to strengthen the rule of law in Russia, to fight corruption and join the United States in advancing international security and arms control, and to end the war in Chechnya. Clinton later claimed to be encouraged by what he said was Putin’s “genuine commitment” to economic reform. But U.S. election campaign pressures appeared, initially at least, to keep the Clinton administration from committing itself too fully to a man with such a long KGB past, to a man whose comments and actions over the past several months have raised legitimate questions about the Kremlin’s commitment to democracy and the promotion of human rights.