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The Mysterious Mr. Putin

This past New Year's Eve will be remembered not only for the millennial celebrations that spread across the globe but also for Boris Yeltsin's surprise announcement of his resignation as Russian president. What is Yeltsin's legacy? Many are still debating this. Meanwhile, there is mounting curiosity about the man Yeltsin has annointed as his heir, Vladimir Putin (left), now serving as acting president.

We know that Putin is popular with Russians for his hardline stance on Chechnya. And we know that Yeltsin's resignation has boosted Putin's already excellent chances of winning Russia's upcoming presidential race. But the man himself remains a mystery, as does the kind of president he would make for Russia.

To dispel some of this mystery, Web editor Mary-Lea Cox recently interviewed Blair Ruble (below), director of the Center's Kennan Institute for Advanced Russian Studies, about his initial impressions of Yeltsin's chosen successor.

COX: What do we know about Vladimir Putin?

RUBLE: There's a lot we don't know about Putin. We know about his career since 1991, when he surfaced in Leningrad (St. Petersburg) as the right-hand person to Mayor Anatoli Sobchak, a leading reformist. (Sobchak was one of Putin's law school professors.) He stayed with Sobchak until1996 when Sobchak was voted out of office.

And then, like a number of people who'd been associated with Sobchak such as Anatoli Chubais, Putin moved to Moscow, where he's worked in a number of national security positions.

He spent just two years in the Yeltsin government before being named head of the Federal Security Service, the successor to the KGB. Last August, Yeltsin made him prime minister.

We also know Putin graduated from the political faculty of Leningrad State University in 1975 and then went to work for the KGB both in Leningrad and in East Germany. No one has convincingly explained what he did during that period. That's a big chunk of Putin's career -- 15 years. It's kind of an unknown period and likely to remain so.

COX: To what extent is Putin Yeltsin's pawn?

RUBLE: What seems to be clear from Putin's service to Sobchak and to Yeltsin is that he has been a loyal aide and deputy. And he has retained some sense of loyalty to these two mentors. Sobchak moved to Paris following his electoral defeat surrounded by a cloud of corruption accusations, and Putin made it possible for Sobchak to return to Russia after he became head of the security services. This suggests that he has a notion of loyalty.

On the other hand, the situation in Russia really demands that Putin be an independent actor. And probably the fact that one of his first actions was to dismiss Yeltsin's daughter was sending a signal that, whatever loyalty he feels, he is now the acting president.

So I think he will try to follow a fine line of honoring his former boss while simultaneously reinforcing his own independence.

COX: Does the resignation of Yeltsin and the elevation of Putin signify a new era in Russian politics, or is this overstating the significance of these events?

RUBLE: Russia is still a political system dominated by people, not laws and institutions. The change in leadership therefore represents a change in direction more so than it would in this country. So, yes, this signifies a new era -- but we don't yet know how to describe it.

Putin's rise definitely signifies a new generation coming to power, but it's still not a post-Soviet generation coming to power. He is a product of the Soviet system. We can expect another, even more significant generational change in the next 15-20 years.

Putin is fluent in German, lived in East Germany and has more international exposure at an earlier age than a Yeltsin or a Gorbachev. But to Russians, Putin's international experience isn't such an important factor. The Russian mood at the moment is very much inward looking -- Russia wants to be left alone and there's a lot of hostility towards the West in general and the U.S. in specific. At one level, I would anticipate that for political reasons Putin will play to that. But it's counterbalanced by the fact that Russia really needs money from abroad. It can't afford to be left alone however much it might want to. One of Putin's major political tasks is to try to square that circle.

COX: What prospects does Putin have of gaining control over the floundering Russian economy -- does he have the power and the will to take on the robber barons?

RUBLE: This is the central question, and we don't have a total answer yet. I think it's clear Putin will have to reassert state control in some form over the economy if he's to reign in the oligarchs. And the real question is how is he going to try to assert state control -- through regulation, through direct control, through criminal proceedings? It's not clear what he's going to do but it will certainly decide the shape of his regime. From what he's said in the past, he believes in a much larger role for the state in the economy than Americans would find comfortable, but what's not clear is the nature of that intervention -- whether the state would try to run economic sectors, regulate economic activity, or launch criminal investigations that could stifle economic development. The contradiction is that at some level, there has to be criminal prosecution to reign in corruption, so the question is whether or not Putin can do that without suffocating more acceptable forms of private economic activity.

COX: Are American officials right to be troubled by Putin's hardline stance on the war in Chechnya?

RUBLE: Yes, the prosecution of the war in Chechnya has been unconscionably brutal, with civilians paying a particularly heavy price. The Russian army and Putin's seeming lack of concern for that price should give all of us pause. And most importantly, it may be producing future generations of enemies of the Russian state on the ground.

Putin has embraced this war as his. That's a serious fact that we simply can't talk away. It's difficult to know what his motives were, but this is still a popular war in Russia and by making it his, he has gained popularity. He would not be a national political figure were it not for this war.

The way in which Putin has spoken about this war -- and the way the Russian government has pursued it -- frankly makes me concerned about what Russia will be like under a Putin presidency. The situation in Chechnya bespeaks a regime that is brutal, callous, and unconcerned over international norms and basic human rights. The scale of what's going on makes it difficult to allow for mitigating factors such as Russia's declining international status. The West should take note of this. There's not too much we can do about it, though.

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Kennan Institute

The Kennan Institute is the premier US center for advanced research on Eurasia and the oldest and largest regional program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. The Kennan Institute is committed to improving American understanding of Russia, Ukraine, Central Asia, the South Caucasus, and the surrounding region though research and exchange.  Read more