Vladimir Putin's three years in office have been a roaring success by almost any standard one cares to apply. Skeptics are right to remain cautious about the Russian leader's commitment to press freedom, and naysayers will continue to point to lagging development in Russia of the kind of civil society taken for granted in the United States and Western Europe.
The brutal waging of Russia's war in Chechnya also remains disturbing--and troubling too is the intimidation brought to bear by the Kremlin on both Russian and foreign journalists who try to reveal the ugliness of the conflict.
But place Chechnya and press freedom aside, and Putin must be considered a great leader. At 50 he is the youngest man to lead Russia in modern history, and in his short period in office so far he has consolidated power and achieved a measure of political stability that evaded his predecessor, Boris Yeltsin.
Above all, Putin has managed to instill in Russians a restored sense of pride in their country. That pride is going hand in hand with a sense of direction--Russians, especially younger ones (those in their 20s and 30s), want a modern Russia and they believe Putin is the man who can fix the process that will allow them to have the economic opportunities to flourish. His popularity ratings now regularly top 80 percent.
The state under Putin has been strengthened--during the latter period of Yeltsin's rule it had become dangerously wobbly. The only losers under Putin have been the oligarchs, who under Yeltsin had been allowed to mix economic and political clout to a degree unacceptable in a country eager to shake off the graft of the dying days of communism.
Overweening mafia groups, such as the Tambov organization in St. Petersburg, have found also--and to their shock--that their swagger and threats carry less weight under Putin. State and local officials are far more reluctant to kowtow to the criminals, fearful of the consequences if discovered.
Much headway has been made in reducing the petty graft that was everywhere in Russia. A few years ago here in St. Petersburg it was a simple matter to buy a driver's license without taking a test and most youngsters became motorists with an easy $50 bribe. But that approach now is much harder and costs a lot more.
On Dec. 19, in his second annual live television question-and-answer session with ordinary Russians, Putin clearly was proud of his accomplishments to date and rattled off improving economic statistics. He pointed to falling inflation and the reduction in foreign-debt payments as sound achievements pulled off by his administration.
He also is delighted with the results of his audacious move to combat the tax evasion that was bleeding his country--he introduced a flat income tax of 13 percent and tax revenues increased rapidly. …