- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 5, 2000

It may seem like a far cry from William Shakespeare to Kremlin politics, but then again maybe not. Looking at pictures of the pinched face of Russia's new acting president Vladimir Putin, a quote from "Julius Caesar" springs to mind: "Let me have men about me that are fat,/ Sleek-headed men, and such as sleep a-nights./ Yond Cassius has a mean and hungry look./ He thinks too much. Such men are dangerous."

Is Vladimir Putin dangerous? At least his record is dark enough that even analysts and officials here are taking a very cautious approach to his appointment in the wake of Russian President Boris Yeltsin's dramatic resignation on New Year's Eve. No sign yet of the customary inanities that have tended to accompany changes in leadership in the Soviet Union and later Russia. Remember the chorus of optimistic noises greeting, of all people, Yuri Andropov in 1992? The former KGB chief was hailed as a jazz fan, a drinker of scotch and a reader of mystery novels one of us surely.

Vladimir Putin's qualifications for Russia's top job have been on very public display since he was named prime minister in August, which is probably why extreme leeriness has greeted the new acting president. Rather than jubilations at the arrival of a new generation at the helm (Mr. Putin is 48 years old), Mr. Putin's appointment was greeted with statements like he "is a cool character. He's smart, he's hard to read…he's more opaque," as one White House official told The Washington Post. Or National Security Adviser Samuel Berger's "I think he recognizes the importance of the Russian relationship with the West. In all our dealings, the premise has been to solve our problems, but the jury is out."

Mr. Putin's chief qualifications for the job, to which he was elevated from the position of head of the Federal Security Service after the speedy demise of Prime Ministers Primakov and Stepashin, appear to be loyalty and ruthlessness. From the perspective of Mr. Yeltsin, the authoritarian Mr. Putin is just the ticket. Mr. Yeltsin needs protection against charges of corruption sure to follow in the case of an unsympathetic successor, and has indeed received such protection from Mr. Putin. (It is not clear whether this will extend to family members, though. Mr. Putin this week summarily dismissed Mr. Yeltsin's daughter Tatyana as an adviser.) The acting president also needs to go the distance to presidential elections scheduled on March 26, in which a Putin victory is not a foregone conclusion, though one would think it nearly so. Unless the war in Chechnya, which has bought him popularity, goes drastically bad like the 1994-96 war and the Russian media begins to tell the truth about it, Mr. Putin will continue to ride on a wave of Russian jingoism and xenophobia.

As for his vision for Russia, it involves a strong hand at the top. In a statement after the parliamentary election success of the Unity party, which backs him, Mr. Putin wrote, "A strong state for Russia is not an anomaly, not something that must be fought against, but on the contrary is a source and guarantor of order, the initiator and driving force of all change. Russia will not soon become, if ever, a second copy of, say, the United States or England, where liberal values have deep historical traditions." Perhaps, but it will certainly be to the detriment of the Russian people if Mr. Putin turns out to be right.

Regarding relations with the United States, Mr. Putin told a meeting of top security officials in December, marking the glorious 82nd anniversary of the founding of the Soviet security services, that "several years ago, we fell prey to an illusion that we have no enemies. We have paid dearly for this. Russia has its own national interests, and we have to defend them." Now, who could he have been thinking of?

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