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Putin's First Year

Tuesday, 03 April 2001 12:00 AM

Over the last year, Putin neither lived up to the hopes of his admirers nor fully justified the fears of his detractors. But given the opportunities he has enjoyed in the form of a favorable global economy and a compliant parliament, Putin's failure to transform his popular support into the concrete reforms he promised has been a disappointment for the majority of Russians.

As it's become clear, domestically Putin has sought consolidation of maximum state power in his hands, which eventually could give him a personal dictatorship. As far as his pre-election promises are concerned, almost nothing has been done, and Russians are now worse off than they were during the reign of Putin's predecessor, Boris Yeltsin, who, the joke goes, ran the country without actually being conscious.

A few examples: Thanks to some $32 billion in oil revenues, the Russian government continues its brutal and bloody war in Chechnya, has managed to increase pensions only slightly, and has started to pay salaries on a relatively regular basis. There has also been some change in the tax system so that some businesses could emerge from the gray zone, but the majority of companies and people are still cheating the government's tax system.

However, in general the Russian economy is still in stagnation and actually none of the promised reforms were realized. It has been announced that planned reforms of the banking and pension systems have been postponed until the beginning of 2002. The same thing happened with the reform of the so-called natural monopolies and the courts.

Military reform may become a reality sometime toward the end of the decade. The long-anticipated land reform, which Russian leaders have been talking about as long as they have been talking about reforms at all, was castrated before it even reached the parliament.

The promised reform of the administrative system and reduction of government personnel are still far away, and in fact the state bureaucracy grew by about 100,000 people last year. In the field of administrative reform, Mr. Putin invested considerable efforts to reinstate Moscow authority over the regions. But so far, instead of a clear vertical structure, Putin has set up a competition in which the elected provincial governors are pitted against the seven "super-envoys" he appointed, which means that the transactional cost of doing business has gone up.

During last year, capital flight out of the country also increased. The level of corruption and bribes paid by businesses to the government bureaucrats increased as well, and high expectations of huge foreign investments vanished unrealized.

Although the former KGB has been trying to keep a strong control over the population, the law enforcement structures have been completely unfettered, so crime is up, not down.

Also during his first year, Putin has almost completely uprooted the very weak roots of democracy, particularly press freedom, by closing the only independent TV channel. Recently the Russian press quoted a Kremlin insider, who knows Mr. Putin personally, as saying that the Russian president "is no enemy of free speech. He simply finds absurd the idea that somebody has the right to criticize him publicly."

Internationally, Putin was really active, but in a manner not especially good for Russia's national interests. As Newsmax.com reported, if Russia really wants to belong to the Euro-Atlantic democratic world and to become an investment magnet, Moscow leaders have to develop primary and long-term ties with the West, not with the East.

However, throughout his first year, Putin has continued to develop the policy of Yevgeny Primakov, the former Gorbachev friend (Primakov betrayed Gorbachev in 1991 to keep his position as a spymaster), later foreign minister, and once prime minister, during Boris Yeltsin's administration. In line with this policy, widely known as the "Primakov doctrine," Putin has been busy building an anti-American coalition of nations including Red China, North Korea, Iran, Iraq, Libya, Cuba and other rogue states.

Putin coated his anti-American policy with his "multipolar world" rhetoric to defy what he calls America's "unipolar" geopolitical influence. However, the fact is that during the past year Moscow has been back in the old business of challenging the U.S. through an indirect strategy aimed at building up the strength of America's adversaries.

Putin has also occasionally been successful in his attempts to create and develop a split between the U.S. and its European allies by attacking President Bush's National Missile Defense and suggesting Russia's membership in a joint European military structure. Of course, until now Mr. Putin has not been ready to challenge the U.S. directly. But if Washington can't find a way to control the ambitions of the Russian president, he could do so, and do so very soon.

On the first day of his second year in power, Mr. Putin ordered a dramatic reshuffling of his Cabinet, installing his close allies, who are extremely loyal to him personally, as defense and interior ministers, as well as the chiefs of the tax police and atomic energy agency.

From now on Putin and his old friends from the intelligence agencies are out to dominate all of the major state institutions, particularly the military and special services. This means that the development of the Russian military and special services, and proliferation of nuclear materials and technologies, will have the primary attention of Putin's administration in years to come.

In other words, Putin is actually carrying Russia backward toward what it was before and continuing to march toward the restoration of authoritarianism in a new environment. And without an appropriate reaction from the West, the realization of the aggressive Mr. Putin's ambitions will be soon realized.

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Over the last year, Putin neither lived up to the hopes of his admirers nor fully justified the fears of his detractors. But given the opportunities he has enjoyed in the form of a favorable global economy and a compliant parliament, Putin's failure to transform his popular...
Tuesday, 03 April 2001 12:00 AM
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