- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 4, 2000

Vladimir Putin has a black belt in karate, and a good thing, too. He may need it.

Mr. Putin pronounced POOT-in, a perfect name for a politician in any language is only the acting president of Russia, but he's the front-runner in the March 26 election that will either make him the president in fact or return him to the dry obscurity whence he sprang as Boris Yeltsin's prime minister.

In the four months that he served as PM, he hushed the derision that greeted him to become everybody's favorite Russian politician. Only 2 percent of the Russians told pollsters they liked him when he burst onto the stage, but last week the same pollsters found that almost a majority of the voters now expect him to win the March election.

He did it the way prime ministers and presidents have always done it, with boldness, audacity and finding somebody to kick around. When terrorists destroyed four apartment blocks in Moscow in September, killing children asleep in their beds, Mr. Putin, perhaps betraying his origins in the KGB, expressed the rage in the streets in the language of the streets: "We will wipe the terrorists out wherever we find them. If we find them sitting on the toilet, then that's where we will do it."

He wasn't a candidate in last month's parliamentary elections, but the man who wasn't on the ballot was the biggest man on the stage. He endorsed a hard-line Unity bloc of parties and he's probably why they won. He was the star of an election-eve television broadcast, demonstrating his judo prowess by slamming an opponent to the floor. It was good imitation of Jesse Ventura in his feather-boa days.

Only yesterday he demonstrated his slam-dunk when he fired Boris Yeltsin's favorite daughter from her job as presidential alter ego. Tatyana Yeltsin Dyachenko was her father's "image consultant" his Dick Morris, you might say and taught him the American art of the sound bite. But "in reality," says one of the Yeltsin inner circle, "Tatyana was used as a channel for feeding information to the president, and I think this happened because Yeltsin's own ability to comprehend and analyze information is very limited."

And in reality, President Putin doesn't need anyone's help in projecting the image of his own choice. A lot of people in the West are aghast at the brutal Russian assault on Chechnya, surprised that the Russians in Moscow could be so mercilessly cruel to their own countrymen. This is a naive reading both of Russian history and of human nature, of course, and indeed of anyone's history. If Vladimir Putin needs a role model for dealing with a breakaway province (and there's no evidence that he does), he could look to our own history. Abraham Lincoln, worshipped as a convenient deity by some of our own modern pols, was just as cruel, just as merciless, just as ruthless, and considerably more effective in dealing with his breakaway "provinces" only a little more than a century ago.

Mr. Putin's brusque dismissal of the Yeltsin daughter will no doubt further burnish his reputation as the tough guy who can make tough decisions stick. Tatyana's a bit of a Hillary Clinton, with Hillary's haughty "All-for-one-and-I'm-the-one" approach to life and her churlish disdain for the laws that govern everyone else. Like the American first lady, Tatyana has been the target of a criminal investigation into allegations of financial shimmyshammy, and like Hillary, she has been a target of outrage as an unelected dabbler into affairs that are none of her business.

Nevertheless, Mr. Putin owes a considerable debt to Tatyana's daddy. Boris Yeltsin came to power on a similar wave of good feeling and great expectations (and a perverse pride in Mr. Yeltsin's inability to hold his hooch), and if Mr. Yeltsin had not then become a national bad joke the Russians would feel no need for a national he-man. The Moscow newspapers are full of stories about Russian women confessing to having erotic dreams about Mr. Putin. (Bill Clinton, who was daydreaming yesterday of returning to Arkansas to run for Congress, might reconsider, given this Russian female taste for the perverse.)

Like President Clinton in '92, President Putin has the hat, but not yet the cattle. It's not yet clear how he expects to pull a thriving, working nation out of the chaos that is modern Russia. He says he wants a market economy, but one regulated, and this naturally raises fears in the West that he means bureaucratic strangulation. There can't be a return to a Soviet economy, he vows, but neither can Russia become a Western-style democracy like the United States. Nobody, maybe not even Mr. Putin, knows what that means, either. But for the moment, there's more bombs for Chechnya, and that feels really good.

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