- The Washington Times - Friday, May 12, 2000

On the occasion of Russia's democratic transfer of power congratulations are in order to the Russian citizenry.

Not long ago, one of Washington's most radiant minds, a distinguished member of the judiciary, remarked to a friend, "The Russians are a great people and they will be back." Anyone familiar with Russian art and history would agree, and this election might be the most auspicious harbinger of Russia's return.

Throughout most of the 20th century, it was a commonplace belief among Americans that misgovernment was what separated America prosperous and free from Europe, corrupt, less prosperous, the provenance of two world wars and multitudes of other grisly little conflicts.

Old World nonchalance toward constitutional process and the rule of law had allowed corruption and the imposition of thug government, both Nazi and communist.

No European country suffered more grievously than Russia. Now it is emerging from its seven decades of darkness, and it has a freely elected a president who promises democracy, economic growth and an end to corruption. Moreover the record suggests President Vladimir Putin is himself free of corruption, and is intelligent and energetic.

American commentators are wont to say there is a "mystery" about him. What do they mean by that? Is it that he does not smile in public, and American commentators expect the successful politician to smile grimly through all is waking hours? Or is it that Mr. Putin does not have a bird's nest of luxurious hair atop his cranium? Our American politicians are walking advertisements for Rogaine. Mr. Putin if he were to appear in a Rogaine ad would appear as "Mr. Before."

Yet there is a roll to his shoulders when he walks that proclaims him to be as physically fit as any jogging American pol, even more so. He is adept at the martial arts. I have seen BBC television footage of him throwing men much his superior in weight to the mat with a triumphal thump.

If that martial arts stuff alarms certain Americans of a delicate sensibility, let us add that Mr. Putin has also been filmed frisking with his dog, a "fluffy" toy poodle. In this film clip, broadcast on Russian television's Channel One, Mr. Putin says his "kids" imposed the lovable pet on him. He once had, he says, "a ferocious dog… . But it died."

Back in the days of the Cold War, when the West employed "Kremlinologists," keen students of Soviet life who studied every public action of Soviet government, Mr. Putin's admission about his ferocious dog's expiry would have set off little festivals of hope in the heart of every Kremlinologist. Surely they would see it as a message from the Kremlin that ferocity was out. Fluffy gestures for the next generation were in.

Having spent all his adult life in the KGB of Cold War fame, Mr. Putin is certainly capable of sending the West a message in the old-fashioned way.

There are even more substantial reasons to believe the ferocity of his KGB past has been replaced with civilized goals. At the end of the Cold War, he went to work for the mayor of St. Petersburg, the liberal reformer Anatoly Sobchak. He stood by Mr. Sobchak even when the mayor endured treacherous times.

Mr. Putin's policies are being devised by the "Petersburg democrats," reformers with views similar to those of the country's right-wing liberals. He has brought aboard Andrei Illarionov, a liberal, as an economic adviser and has the guarded support of the Russian political faction led by Anatoly Chubais and Sergei Kirienko, two of former President Boris Yeltsin's most sensible colleagues and men whose views are reformist and liberal.

Perhaps American commentators perceive mystery about Mr. Putin owing to his rise from seeming obscurity. The obscurity might be explained by his KGB employment. Obscurity was one of the requirements of his job.

That he was good at his job might also explain his rise to the presidency. In the confused aftermath of glasnost and perestroika, few organized social structures endured and only very weak ones have risen up. Russian political parties are still mere adolescents.

The intelligence community has remained disciplined and intact. It undoubtedly assisted Mr. Putin's rise from St. Petersburg to a prominent place in the Yeltsin circle.

Obviously in the 1990s the road to the Kremlin was nothing like the road a potential president follows to the White House. Yet the Russian intelligence community that assisted Mr. Putin's rise was among the first elite groups in the Soviet system to discern from the 1970s on that the system was no match for capitalism.

In their sophistication and intelligence, the KGB officers of the 1980s might even have discerned the superiority of democracy. That a former KGB officer has come to be president of Russia is no mystery. The mystery that remains is what Mr. Putin means by democracy and if he has the political skills to advance his stated goals of democracy, economic growth and an end to corruption.

R. Emmett Tyrrell Jr. is the editor in chief of the American Spectator.

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