Putin's Next Test

By Caryl, Christian; Underhill, William | Newsweek International, March 18, 2002 | Go to article overview

Putin's Next Test


Caryl, Christian, Underhill, William, Newsweek International


Boris Berezovsky is working hard. The man who once was Russia's most powerful business tycoon and political kingmaker lives in London, exiled under a cloud of growing criminal investigations. Yet he's doing his best to stay a player. Recently he told one French newspaper that he would "struggle to the death" against his former political protege, Vladimir Putin. And last week he delivered what he clearly hoped would be a body blow to the Russian president, launching a TV documentary alleging that the Russian security service, the FSB, staged a spate of bombings in Moscow and other cities, which claimed 300 lives in 1999.

As every Russian knows, Putin blamed the atrocities on Chechen terrorists--and promptly launched a brutal military campaign to subdue them. If the president helped engineer the plot as a pretext for his crackdown, killing innocent Russians, wouldn't that be treason? Berezovsky poses the question bluntly, as he told NEWSWEEK in London. "Putin says the Chechens are responsible but has never given any evidence," he says. "No one is in jail, nor has there been a proper investigation."

This wasn't the first time the ousted oligarch has tried to mix up Kremlin politics by remote control. When Putin was asked to comment on one of the tycoon's earlier broadsides from abroad, he responded laconically: "Boris Berezovsky? Who's that?" This time around he didn't even trouble to reply. The reason is simple enough. On the face of things, Putin has never looked stronger. Public-opinion surveys show the president's approval ratings at around 75 percent. The economy is looking back on three years of solid growth at a time when most of the world is still in recession. The government is doing its job with an aura of businesslike calm that stands in stark contrast to the tumult of the Yeltsin years. The long and unpopular war in Chechnya has fallen from the headlines, even if it's not over. Internationally, the picture is even rosier. Putin is the new friend of America and Europe, credited with transform-ing traditional Russian xenophobia into a newly promising strategic alliance with the West.

Yet look again. For all his recent success, Putin stands at the threshold of daunting new challenges. Now comes phase two, the really hard part: cracking down on a massively corrupt police force; rejuvenating a hidebound state bureaucracy, judiciary and tax authority; reassuring military elites who do not trust him or share his vision of the future, even as he prods them to reform. Small wonder that Putin has lately come under some surprising attacks, of which Berezovsky's is but one. Nor have the doubters been protesting the issues of yore--hungry workers fearing economic disruptions, or intellectuals objecting to the Chechnya war. These days, the voices are the far more powerful constituencies of the Russian ruling class--the elites of the very institutions that Putin seeks to change.

It's highly unlikely that Berezovsky would somehow be able to foment such opposition. Last week's docudrama added little to the mystery surrounding the 1999 bombings, and certainly did not provide a smoking gun pointing to Putin. Indeed, it is hard to imagine how anyone could dare right now to confront the president, let alone topple him, as Berezovsky seeks to do. But make no mistake. There are dangers aplenty. Consider the economy. Putin and his team have pushed some striking reforms through Parliament. Among them: measures to reduce government red tape, simplify the tax system and allow the sale of land. But the tasks to come are even trickier. One is the upcoming plan to hike prices that Russians pay for housing maintenance and utilities. That will hit households right in the pocketbook. Another is desperately needed banking reform. Creating a bona fide money market will challenge some of the country's biggest vested interests--including the Central Bank, a bureaucratic behemoth whose murkiness is extraordinary even by Russian standards. …

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