World Awaits Putin's Agenda ; as He Officially Moves into the Kremlin Sunday, Will Russia's President Shed His Policy Enigma

Article excerpt

The world will be watching Sunday as Vladimir Putin is handed the keys to the Kremlin in a glittering ceremony with all Russia's political elite in attendance. The meteoric rise of post-Soviet Russia's second elected president is complete. In his inaugural remarks, the former KGB officer and self-described "state builder" may begin to reveal his agenda for the country he took by storm.

Despite a sputtering civil war in Chechnya, an economic recovery that appears to be running out of steam, and warnings that Russia's fragile press freedoms could be in danger, Mr. Putin has arrived in power with surprisingly little public controversy. Even the March election, which gave him a solid first-round victory, was a lackluster one-horse race.

"People feel the country has been drifting for years, and they are fed up with the endless farewell to Communism," says Sergei Kalmykov, deputy director of the Kremlin-connected Politika Foundation. "Now they hope to see a leader who is decisive, dynamic, pragmatic, and competent. Putin has successfully projected that image."

When Putin steps up to read his oath of office, he will in every way present a sharp contrast with his predecessor and political godfather, Boris Yeltsin. At his inauguration almost four years ago, a pasty-faced, stumbling Mr. Yeltsin barely made it through the specially shortened ceremony.

"Putin's great advantage is that he is not Yeltsin," says Mr. Kalmykov. "He is healthy where Yeltsin was always sick. He is rational where Yeltsin made a fetish out of unpredictable and sometimes exotic behavior. He is conciliatory where Yeltsin was confrontational."

Some experts even suggest Putin is a Russian version of Bill Clinton or Tony Blair, part of the global trend to elect slick, pragmatic, and youthful leaders.

"Putin is in tune with the world, and will mix easily with other leaders," says Grigory Kurtman, a political analyst with the independent Public Opinion Foundation in Moscow. "He is well equipped to move into the mainstream, and will not harp on Russia's different culture and separate destiny the way Yeltsin did."

But Putin's honeymoon may not last long if he does not move swiftly to supplement style with substance, observers say.

"Putin may be the first leader in Russian history who has no ideology, and that's good," says Igor Mintusov, director of Nikola- M, one of Russia's leading political consultancies. …


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