Who is Vladimir Putin?
Thrust on the scene, from obscurity a little over a year ago as Yeltsin’s fortunes began to wane, Putin is seen by most as a an unknown factor in Russian politics. His rise to the highest seat of power in Russia lends many to conclude that a new group of leaders and with it, different polices, will come to mark his term in office.
Yet little is really known about him other that an uneventful and lackluster career in the KGB. Putin seems to hail from a brand of Soviet bureaucrats that are now attempting to save Russia from fragmentation and further economic decline. This is the image many ordinary Russians have of Putin and his youth and vigor coupled with a clear sense of decisiveness is in stark contrast to the ailing, old and vacillating Yeltsin. Yet Putin’s ideology remains muddled, perhaps intentionally, as he has garnered a large and broad coalition of supporters many of which may become alienated should the real Putin’s policies become more apparent. It has been stated that his views are unrefined. This may very well be true, yet the war in Chechenya shows clearly what this man will not tolerate political fragmentation of the Russian Republic. He has, to some degree shown the face of the old Russian Bear in this respect, and the West can be sure that the Clinton Administrations fiasco in Kosovo and the open insult to Russia will not be tolerated by Putin. It is unclear how he will deal with many important issues at hand such as corruption and taxes. When it comes to foreign policy, he will be careful not to openly agitate the West at this critical juncture in office, yet, his whole demeanor at least what can be ascertained at this point, is that the old way of doing business (Yeltsin style) is over. Russia will, when politically necessary, assert itself at home and abroad. Putin will certainly want to (carefully) integrate Russia into Western Security organizations (NATO) but will do so only if it is in Russia’s Long term interest and as long as it has a important role to play in policy making. Russia will not become the lackey, shouldering the burden of sending troops to various parts of the world in ‘peacekeeping’ operations. The recent marked increase in Defense spending portends a desire to make Russia once again a great power to be reckoned with, and with it the clout to have an important say in decision making in regional and international institutions.
The sense on the domestic front is that Putin will certainly want to reassert central authority at home and this could prove to be a sore spot in the future if Putin tries to assert too much authority over the regions. Many of Russia’s regions already resent much of Moscow’s interference in their affairs. Yet if Putin can walk this fine line and bring a sense of stability and purpose to Russia in general, whatever toes he must step on to gain the necessary amount of central authority will probably be welcomed by the man on the street. Putin will want to attract foreign direct investment and keep up some degree of market reforms. Yet those reforms will not be based on the western model, which is what many investors are hoping for. Russia will probably keep a strong state role in the Russian Economy which will be welcomed by many; by the oligarchs as they will continue see the state as the trough from which they can still feed many unprofitable enterprises, and obtain sweetheart contracts and bailouts though connections within the Government. It will also be welcomed by the man on the street as ‘reform’ is often associated in Russia with corruption and graft and many Russians would like to see a ‘strong hand’ deal with what is seen as a free for all. This state of affairs is complete with gangsters, crooked cops, protection rackets and the like which is (probably) incorrectly viewed as being controllable by a strong central government.
Early figures for economic recovery in Russia for 2000 are skewed. Oil prices are a large factor brining some economic relief to Russia at present, but these high prices are not likely to continue indefinitely. The Russian economy is in desperate need of an overhaul that will take real political will that is certain to alienate much, if not most of Putin’s support. It remains to be seen how much of these good economic trends can continue. The Russian trade surplus has helped Russia pay off some of its debt and demand for Russian goods is likely to remain strong provided the EU is not too adversely affected by the potential for poor economic news from the US. This would all bode well for a slow but marked increase in Russian economic fortunes. Yet being able to turn some this capital to real investment that can spark meaningful economic activity is yet to be seen. This, and the need for a more effective legal system that will help draw in more foreign investment is badly needed if Russia is to see real economic improvement in the near term. Will it be possible for Putin to put a functioning legal system in place? Not without the support of the oligarchs who have used their influence in the past to undermine other efforts of reform. This alone will probably be his most important challenge in the coming year: How to get the oligarchs under control, enlist their support or destroy their power and at the same time, remain politically viable.
Challenges will come early for Putin as new forecasts coming from the US Department of Agriculture shows that Russia is having increasing trouble feeding its population and that food shortages are very real possibility.
The need for Russia to boost food imports will only drain the surplus that could be earmarked for other productive economic activity. Ordinarily, Russia could borrow the money, but having defaulted on the international loans recently, this is no longer possible. This will lead to some hard choices for Putin in the near term, dip into gold reserves, siphon off the trade surplus, use currency reserves or simply print money to buy food. This will prove to be an interesting test for Putin and will reveal much about the processes and individuals he deals with and uses to solve economic problems.
Putin is still very much an unknown and as such will be given a longer honeymoon with the oligarchs and Russian people than if he had been a better known political entity. He has yet to show his real face to the West and to ordinary Russians. The world is waiting. Copyright © 2000 Mark S. Watson