- The Washington Times - Monday, July 17, 2000

Russia is on the brink of sinking into Third World status, President Vladimir Putin warned in his recent state of the nation address. The country faces a combination of rising crime, entrenched cronyism, high taxes and the "whim of bureaucrats," which threatens Russia's economic health, he said. Also troubling is the country's falling birth rate which could make Russia a senile nation. Russia is benefiting from rising oil prices, which mean the country has higher oil revenues pouring into its coffers, but it's not enough to offset all these problems.

To ward off the crisis, Mr. Putin offered a number of proposals. Some concerned the country's governing structure. Last month, for example, he asked for authority to fire law-breaking governors, effectively but not coincidentally centralizing power in his own hands. On the other hand, he called for a more independent judiciary. It's a generous sentiment, but to date it is little more than that. In fact, his administration has done little to support the independence of the courts, which are in urgent need of resources and greater authority.

Some proposals involved economic reform. Mr. Putin strongly endorsed a stronger banking system, clear property rights and lower taxes. He also said it was crucial to stop unnecessary state intervention in the markets. But he shows little sign of resisting the impulse to intervene himself.

Surprising many observers, Mr. Putin stressed the importance of a free press. But the Russian president seemed conflicted on this point, criticizing the use of the media as a "tool for fighting government" and the influence of media tycoons on journalists. In fact, Mr. Putin seems partial to a free press only in theory, as evidenced by the May raid on Russia's only national media company, Media-Most, by armed "tax collectors" wearing black ski masks. The company's owner, Vladimir Gusinsky, was detained about one month later for three days. Media-Most had been highly critical of the Kremlin's war on Chechnya. Other critics of the war haven't fared much better. Andrei Babitskii, a Radio Free Europe journalist, was detained by the Russian military in January on the flimsiest of pretexts.

If Mr. Putin's ostensible agenda seems confused, even inscrutable, his record is not. Mr. Putin has shown, through his brutality towards Chechens, that he is willing to impose unspeakable suffering on others to consolidate his own, and his country's, power. He seems to want to consolidate democracy in Russia for posterity's sake but prefers to be unrestrained by its checks and balances himself.

Mr. Putin's widespread popularity in Russia is a source of real strength. He should use that power to create the right conditions for an effective democracy. Russia needs more than a strong president to take on its deeply entrenched problems.

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