- The Washington Times - Friday, March 24, 2000


There is no mistaking it the edge has returned. It is there in the swagger of every cop and interior security agent from Moscow to Rostov and beyond. It can be heard in the intimidating tone of their barked orders and observed in the swing of their nightsticks. They are back and Vladimir Putin is their man or so they believe.

Russian police and security people whom I have spoken with about Mr. Putin talk little of democracy, arguing that it has brought Russia nothing but misery and anarchy. Mr. Putin attracts them not because they think he will open up the economy to genuine free-market competition or encourage Western-style civil liberties. For them he promises to be an efficient czar, who will restore order and reassert control. In short, they maintain the collective is important, not the individual.

It is a view shared by many in the armed forces. "The military has made its choice," said Gen. Gennady Troshev, who commands federal ground forces in Chechnya. "We know who is the man who today stands by and supports the military." For the generals, Mr. Putin's purposefulness in the North Caucasus contrasts markedly with Boris Yeltsin's indecision. And his promises to increase military spending are music to their ears. There are 1.2 million men and women in Russia's armed forces and tens of thousands more in the interior ministry and the KGB's successor security agencies, the FSB and SVR. On Sunday in Russia's presidential election, Mr. Putin, a former spy himself, can count on their loyalty.

What his fans see in him is exactly what the dwindling band of liberals and democrats here fear. Mr. Putin's talk of restoring Russian greatness and of rebuilding a strong state are, as far as they are concerned, easy-to-decipher code-words evoking the Soviet past. They notice that Mr. Putin sees economic growth not as something desirable in its own right, but merely as a means to strengthen the state militarily and to allow it to exert more influence overseas.

Last month, former dissidents, including Andrei Sakharov's widow, Elena Bonner, signed a group letter warning that Mr. Putin would usher in an era of "modernized Stalinism." For some Western observers such warnings smack of alarmism and hint that the old dissidents have become rather out of touch. But in the 80 or so days since Mr. Putin became acting president his words about liberal democracy and civil liberties have not matched his deeds.

In Mr. Putin's war in Chechnya there has been no distinction drawn between combatants and civilians. For domestic audiences he has led the chorus baying for Chechen blood with his barracks-room talk of "wasting them (rebels) away even in their outhouses." Since Boris Yeltsin stepped aside on New Year's Eve there has been a clear pattern of state intimidation of what little remains of an independent media here. The infringements, big and small, have ranged from financial pressure and the calling in of state bank loans to "active measures" that bear all the hallmarks of Mr. Putin's former KGB employers.

Newspaper computers have been hacked into. Last week, the investigative newspaper Novaya Gazeta lost an entire issue from its system. One newspaper proprietor has told me of receiving phone calls from very senior Kremlin officials warning him to tone down criticism of the acting president or suffer the consequences after Sunday's election.

The election tactics employed by the Kremlin, too, are disturbing. Regional governors' arms have been twisted to secure their backing of Mr. Putin. There have been dark warnings of introducing a constitutional change that would replace the current system with presidential appointment of governors. The more reluctant governors have been told about the "kompromat," or compromising personal information, held on them in security files.

Even more disturbingly, there is seemingly no end to Mr. Putin's appointments of former KGB and current FSB officers to influential posts in the Kremlin. In January, Russian journalist Yevgenia Albats, an authority on the KGB, cautioned liberals and reformers not to jump to conclusions because of Mr. Putin's Soviet intelligence background. Now she is alarmed by Mr. Putin's creeping KGB infiltration of the Russian government.

If the Bonners and Albats are right to fear Mr. Putin, why are most Russians going to embrace him on Sunday? Because they are ready to make a trade-off. Mr. Putin offers them order and promises that Russia once again will enjoy respect and global clout. Every time during the election campaign he had a major clash with the West over Chechnya, there was a two- or three-point surge in his poll ratings. If the cost is more state, police and security control, most Russians seem ready for the exchange.

The very idea of democracy has been devalued in Russia, as Alexander Solzhenitsyn pointed out last week in a rare interview. "A democracy requires that people be independent as citizens and as economic subjects," he said. The exercise of power, he pointed out, in the last decade has not flown "from below to above" any more than it did during the communist era. So for most, the trade-off is not that harsh.

How authoritarian will Mr. Putin be? Too much has happened in Russia during the last nine years for him to dismantle some of the freedoms established, even if he wanted to. There are also too many special interests to be satisfied with him in ultimate control. Some of Mr. Putin's power will be almost chimerical. But as one character remarks in a John Le Carre novel, "the greatest danger is not the reality of Russian power but the illusion of it."

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