Tue, Mar 16, 2004 - Page 6 News List

Putin seen giving Russians the strong hand they want

AFP , MOSCOW

During his second mandate Russian President Vladimir Putin is likely to steer back toward Soviet ways on the domestic front while pushing through economic reforms in an effort to attract more Western investment, analysts say.

The 51-year-old former KGB agent swept to a crushing victory in Sunday's presidential election, Russia's third of the post-Soviet era, garnering 69 percent of the vote according to first exit polls.

After his first four years at the helm of the world's largest country, Putin has managed to accumulate astounding power reminiscent of the omnipotence of Soviet leaders.

A pliant pro-Kremlin party controls two-thirds of parliament, a new prime minister has no political ambitions, state-controlled media offer fawning coverage and former secret service colleagues are in top positions of power.

These lurches toward Russia's authoritarian past are likely to continue during Putin's second term, driven by a hawkish Kremlin clan known as the siloviki and supported by much of the population, analysts say.

If Putin's predecessor Boris "Yeltsin made two steps toward democracy, Putin made one step backward," said Olga Kryshtanovskaya, a respected analyst.

"These elections mark the end of the first 15 years of Russia's development that began with [last Soviet president Mikhail] Gorbachev," said Lilia Shevtsova of the Carnegie Moscow Center. "The old experiment is over."

"These elections will now legitimize a new experiment that will try to modernize the state through the use of the state bureaucracy," she said.

The siloviki advocate a so-called "managed democracy" route for Russia -- a market economy under a watchful eye of a powerful state.

The approach has popular support in Russia, where half of the population thinks that the country "always needs a strong hand," while only one-fifth oppose authoritarian power, according to a recent poll by Romir Monitoring.

"A lot of Russians want a repressive and authoritarian state," said Mark Urnov, an analyst. "They think that people must be afraid of the state in order to respect it."

The siloviki are opposed by a more liberal Kremlin faction, the reformers who say that a market economy cannot exist in an authoritarian system.

Putin has balanced the two groups during his first term, but there is disagreement over how he will proceed during the next four years.

While some say he will use his immense power to push through necessary and painful reforms, others think Putin will keep the balance of power until he anoints a successor toward the end of his second mandate.

"I think that in the second term we need to witness some form of democratization, but I do not believe that Putin is prepared for that," said Yevgeny Yasin, a former economy minister under Yeltsin.

Driving Putin's decisions during his second term will be a desire for Western investment to strengthen Russia's oil-dependent economy and for the former superpower to regain respect on the world stage.

"Putin wants to be a worthy world leader," Kryshtanovskaya said. "Russia's prestige is his personal prestige."

"I think the Western factor is the main limiting factor of authoritarian tendencies," she said.

An example, she said, is the Yukos affair, which culminated last year with the arrest and jailing pending trial of the oil giant's founder Mikhail Khodorkovsky.

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