- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 28, 2000

MOSCOW Russian President-elect Vladimir Putin, having swept to power with a campaign that studiously avoided offending any major faction, yesterday began the hard business of deciding which enemies to make.

The taciturn, often dour former KGB officer and his small team of policy confidants were still picking through the returns from Sunday's vote, in which the 47-year-old acting president narrowly avoided a runoff in the face of an unexpectedly strong challenge from Communist Party head Gennady Zyuganov.

But on economic policy and social services, military spending and civil liberties, corruption and the virtually unchecked power of Russia's business oligarchs, the Putin team can no longer avoid declaring which battles they will fight and which they will finesse, analysts say.

With virtually all the votes counted, Mr. Putin received 52 percent to Mr. Zyuganov's 29 percent, with reformist hope Grigory Yavlinsky of the Yabloko party a distant third with just under 6 percent. Turnout, which many expected to be depressed in the lackluster campaign, topped 68 percent.

Pollster Yuri Levada said Mr. Putin in the campaign played to perfection the role of the mirror in which everyone sees what he or she wants to see.

There was a popular longing for a person who would come and satisfy everyone, noted Dmitry Oreshin, chief analyst of the Central Election Commission, which oversaw the vote. That happened with [former President Boris] Yeltsin before and it's taking place now.

A popular joke in Moscow these days is that Mr. Putin is eyeing Korea as a model for Russian renewal, but it is not clear whether he prefers North or South Korea.

World leaders cautiously welcomed Mr. Putin's victory. President Clinton, who called Mr. Putin today to congratulate him on his victory, pressed again for an end to suffering in the war-ravaged Chechnya.

Mr. Clinton said in a statement issued at the White House that he stressed Russia must launch "impartial and transparent investigations of reported human rights violations" in Chechnya, and allow prompt, full access to the province for international relief organizations and the press.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair in a phone conversation with Mr. Putin yesterday indicated he looked forward to working with the Russian president. German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder hoped for a constructive, fresh start in relations.

The West has criticized the military campaign Mr. Putin has waged in Chechnya but has underlined the need for cooperation.

Mr. Putin and his advisers were busily trying to play down domestic expectations yesterday. Mr. Putin, who has been acting president since Mr. Yeltsin's surprise Dec. 31 resignation, said his first focus would be on a much-anticipated economic reform program now being written, and he cautioned voters against expecting any immediate miracles.

"I think we're seeing the end of the romantic period of Russian reform," said top Putin spokesman Mikhail Margelev, an allusion to the stormy and erratic Yeltsin years.

"Maybe it will be a little bit dull, but you will see precise work taking place," he said.

But many here believe that Mr. Putin must seize the initiative in his inaugural honeymoon, especially if he plans to confront the oligarchs. Russia's baronial tycoons, who grew rich on insider deals during the Yeltsin years, have been openly angling for Mr. Putin's ear and continue to enjoy access to the Putin-run Kremlin.

The success of the new president will depend largely upon his ability to liberate himself from the suffocating grasp of his former allies, observed Scott Blacklin, president of the Moscow-based American Chamber of Commerce in Russia, though he added he did not expect the liberation to occur en masse.

Mr. Margelev yesterday noted that Mr. Putin himself had promised there would be no oligarchs after March 26.

"There has to be a distinction between business and political power or it leads to corruption," the presidential spokesman said.

But Boris Berezovsky, serenely sipping tea as he fielded questions from a score of foreign correspondents at one of the city's five-star Western hotels last week, did not look like an embattled oligarch as he handicapped Mr. Putin's chances.

"Going after big capital would be illogical and counterproductive for Mr. Putin," the oil and media billionaire contended. Mr. Berezovsky, who also holds a seat in the State Duma, said Mr. Putin struck him above all as a pragmatic politician whose anti-oligarch rhetoric was intended solely for the campaign trail.

Both sides agree that a key signal will be the administrative team Mr. Putin assembles as he prepares for the May inauguration. First Deputy Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov, tipped by many to be Mr. Putin's choice for prime minister, is familiar to the West in his dealings with the International Monetary Fund and private Western financial institutions.

But Dmitry Kozak, the government chief of staff, told the Interfax news service here yesterday that Mr. Putin would not name his prime minister and many other key aides until May.

New people are likely to appear, he said.

Civil libertarians are already openly worried about Mr. Putin's authoritarian tendencies, and the willingness of the Kremlin to use state-owned media and tax laws to silence critics and savage Mr. Putin's political rivals. As acting president, Mr. Putin recruited a number of his former KGB colleagues in what he said was a bid to tackle Russia's massive corruption and organized crime problems.

A closer look at Sunday's final results presents more complications in predicting the course of a Putin presidency.

Free-market reformers were disappointed by the dismal showing of Mr. Yavlinsky, the center-left candidate and the default champion of Western-style economic and social reforms in the 11-candidate field. Backers had been hoping for at least 10 percent in the first round to increase Mr. Yavlinsky's leverage with the new president.

"It's a defeat," Yabloko's Vladimir Lukin, deputy speaker in the Duma, said yesterday in an interview broadcast on BBC television. "Putin responded to the image people expected more order, more will. We don't seem to be capable of combating that image."

And Mr. Putin's 52 percent mandate was less than his advisers hoped, while Mr. Zyuganov's 29 percent support was more than they wanted. Mr. Putin actually fell far short of the 50 percent he needed in the early returns from the Russia's Far East regions Sunday, only to be put over the top when western districts reported.

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