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Editorial: Russia's Vladimir Putin is put to the test

Published by The Straits Times, Singapore on 2004-09-10

In less than four years since he became Russia's president after his wobbly predecessor, Boris Yeltsin bowed out, the 41-year-old Vladimir V. Putin has put an unmistakable stamp of personal authority on the Kremlin. His youthful good looks, his popularity with young Russians who see in him a politician dramatically more energetic than the geriatrics who dominated the long years of Communist rule, and his personal rapport with world leaders have contributed to the perception that Mr Putin is indeed the right leader for Russia's new millennium. But now he is in trouble, and democrats everywhere need to demonstrate solidarity with his predicament. Mr Putin's problem is how to make the centre hold, how to sustain a strong federal government without trampling local and regional yearnings for more human rights and self-rule, and how to promote economic development in a country of greedy oil oligarchs whose concern for everyday people's well-being is far exceeded by their ambition to extend their financial fiefdoms.

Mr Putin, a former KGB operative, judo specialist, physical fitness fiend and lover of opera and classical music, has proven himself a tough practitioner of hardball politics - which in a country of 150 million people, 140 languages, 56 political parties and 150 political associations, may well be a necessary precondition of practical governance. The Russian Constitution - which doesn't make allowance for a vice president - invests an enormous amount of power in the president of what's the world's geographically biggest country. Mr Putin isn't comfortable with dissent, and many members of Russia's bicameral parliament - the largely appointed Federation Council and the elected Duma - have had tenuous relations with him. With a determined rebellion among the people of Chechnya, whose militant leaders Mr Shamil Basayev and Mr Aslam Maskhadov, want nothing short of secession, Mr Putin is being tested in ways that he couldn't possibly have imagined. This week's brutal killing of more than 335 hostages in a school in the southern republic of North Ossetia upped the pressure on Mr Putin to end the insurgency by military means - especially since the rebels aren't especially open to the idea of negotiations. At the same time, Mr Putin is getting other bad news: much-needed foreign direct investment, barely US$6.9 billion last year, is expected to decline further in 2004, as foreign investors worry about Russia's domestic stability. Social tensions stemming from rising unemployment and a shortage of consumer goods are increasing. Brigands and extortionists operate at will even in the streets of Moscow, the capital city. Foreign tourism is being adversely affected. Mr Putin's personal animus against the private oil company of Yukos has jeopardized Russia's status as the world's second biggest producer of crude oil, after Saudi Arabia. Mr Putin's relations with leaders of the other 15 republics of he erstwhile Soviet Union aren't terribly encouraging either.

Still, Mr Putin is Russia's most dynamic leader for a generation of new politicians who, in his own words, need to possess "a sense of mission, national pride, and the desire to build a new and civilized Russia." At the start of his presidency, he rightly defined a strong state as "a source and guarantor of law and order and both as an initiator and main driving force of all changes." Chief among his domestic reforms was the re-establishment of the priority of federal laws over regional legislation. Over 3,500 legal acts that had been adopted by various regional authorities were abrogated. And by reforming the Federation Council and by establishing a strong pro-
government faction in the State Duma, Mr Putin succeeded in creating a working majority in both chambers of the parliament. For the first time in post-Soviet Russia, the executive and legislative branches of state power no longer confronted each other in a rigid standoff, a state of affairs that had severely plagued Boris Yeltsin's presidency. In effect, the Putin government was given an opportunity to resume the process of political and economic reforms that had come to an almost complete standstill.

Russia has huge natural resources not only in its oil, but also timber, minerals and hydroelectric power. Its GDP is barely US$450 billion - some US$250 billion less than that of India - but Russia has the potential to become an economic superpower with more foreign investment, especially in manufacturing. It enjoys nearly 95 percent literacy, and has a large cadre of skilled manpower. If Mr Putin succeeds in strengthening civil liberties and a democratic of government, if he persuades the United Nations to step in and help resolve the Chechnya crisis, and if he comes down hard on domestic corruption through harsh penalties - then he will surely be a transformative force in the fitful life of contemporary Russia.

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist


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