- The Washington Times - Monday, May 8, 2000

MOSCOW President Vladimir Putin pledged to finish building democracy in Russia and restore it as a world power after taking the oath of office yesterday in the first democratic transfer of power in his nation's history.
Moving swiftly to tackle the ailing economy, the country's biggest problem, Mr. Putin's first act was to name economics specialist Mikhail Kasyanov as prime minister. Mr. Kasyanov is a well-regarded moderate who backs market reforms.
With his predecessor, Boris Yeltsin, standing stiffly at his side, the 47-year-old Mr. Putin said after taking the presidential oath at the Kremlin that his main task was to save Russia after years of decline.
"Today is really a historic day. For the first time throughout the history of the Russian state, high power is being transferred in the most democratic and simple way, by the will of the people legally and peacefully," Mr. Putin said.
Many Russians hope the former KGB officer will end years of economic and social chaos, boost incomes and living standards, root out entrenched corruption and restore political stability after the turbulent Yeltsin era.
Mr. Putin and Mr. Kasyanov also symbolize the passing of power to a new generation of vigorous, younger leaders after decades of elderly, often ailing, Soviet and Russian heads of state.
"Putin is a new politician with new ideas, and I think the young generation has put its hopes in him," said Natalya Medvedeva, a student.
Mr. Kasyanov, 41, a close ally of Mr. Putin's, had been first deputy prime minister and his appointment to head the Cabinet was widely expected. The appointment must be confirmed by parliament, which is expected to act swiftly.
Mr. Putin took the oath of office amid the ornate splendors of the Andreevsky Hall, the old imperial throne room that is a glittering confection of gold columns, white marble and crystal chandeliers.
The presidential guard in 19th-century uniforms goose-stepped, military bands belted out trumpet fanfares and cannons outside fired a 30-gun salute. The inauguration was broadcast live on Russian TV.
Mr. Yeltsin, who resigned early last New Year's Eve after making Mr. Putin acting president, is rarely seen these days. Frequently hospitalized during his second term, Mr. Yeltsin looked tired and stiff, but smiled during the ceremony.
Mikhail Gorbachev, the last Soviet leader, glumly watched the inauguration as he stood in the crowd of dignitaries in the hall.
An enigmatic figure who never held elected office until winning March 26 elections, Mr. Putin faces an enormous task. The economy has been in decline for years, caught between the failed Soviet system and the corrupt crony capitalism of the Yeltsin years. The education and health systems are crumbling, while life expectancy and the birth rate are falling sharply.
Mr. Putin said he recognized the magnitude of the problems facing Russia and the population's expectations. He acknowledged that further democratic reforms were needed and appealed to all Russians to unite behind him. Some liberal critics, mindful of Mr. Putin's KGB past, fear he will roll back democratic freedoms.
"The road to a free society was not simple and easy. Our history had both tragic and light pages. The construction of the democratic state is far from being completed yet. But a lot has been done," he said.
Mr. Putin said he understood that ordinary Russians desperately want better lives and promised to work openly and honestly for effective government.
"We want Russia to become a free, flowering, rich and mighty and civilized country of which its citizens are proud and which is respected around the world," he said.
Still, the Kremlin ceremony was jammed with the politicians and tycoons who have amassed wealth and power while the rest of Russia has sunk into poverty.
Besides the economy, the other pressing challenge for Mr. Putin is the war in Chechnya. His tough stance against Chechen rebels helped boost his popularity, but Russian forces are bogged down with little hope of quick victory.
Mr. Putin says he wants to restore Russia's great-power status, which could strain relations with the United States. Russia relies heavily on foreign loans, and analysts say Mr. Putin is likely to be pragmatic in dealing with the West.

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