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The Russia Journal
October 19-25, 2001
Many faces of President Putin

Several recent events, although very different in nature, all have had the same effect -- that of showing President Vladimir Putin in a new light.

Most of all, this comes through in Putin's reaction to the tragic events of Sept. 11 in the United States. His unexpectedly quick and clear decision to support the United States in the fight against international terrorism, his subsequent statements about Russia's attitude to possible NATO expansion and his comments regarding the U.S. plans to review the 1972 ABM Treaty are infused with a Western-looking view and a desire to work more closely with the United States.

At no time before Sept. 11 did Putin take such a pro-Western line. On the contrary, he made various overtures to the Russian political forces which dream of rebuilding the empire and restoring Russia's "greatness," which they understand as an ability to compete with the West in every sphere, including military rivalry.

This change of direction is important for Russia's foreign policy, but perhaps even more so for its development as a whole, because what line to take regarding the West has been at the center of debate between supporters and opponents of Russian reforms since their beginning.

It is interesting in this context to look at how left-wing politicians grouped around the Communist Party (KPRF) have changed their attitude to Putin. At first, they hoped he would lead the country away from democratic and liberal reforms. They were especially enthused by Putin's decision to return the old Soviet national anthem. But now these hopes are forgotten and their mouthpiece, the Sovietskaya Rossiya newspaper, writes that Putin is even worse than the much-hated Yeltsin.

On a smaller but no less important scale, the new Putin can be seen in his reaction to the flare-up of the conflict between the Georgian authorities and separatists in breakaway Abkhazia, to the Georgian parliament's statements about leaving the C.I.S. and recalling Russian peacekeepers because of what they call Russia's biased position.

Putin reacted calmly, saying he would accept these decisions made by the sovereign Georgian state, and avoided the irritated tone one could have expected to follow the anti-Russian statements from Tbilisi. There can be no doubt that Putin is fully aware that many politicians in Georgia -- above all President Eduard Shevardnadze -- want to take a pro-American rather than pro-Russian line.

In its way, the new foreign-debt policy is just as significant. It was only in January that top government circles were saying that Russia would not be able to meet its foreign-debt commitments in full and wanted a new rescheduling agreement. Then Putin announced that all agreed payments would be made on time. Now the sensation is that at a meeting with International Monetary Fund Managing Director Horst Koehler, Putin said that Russia would pay its debts to the IMF ahead of the deadline.

Right from the start of his presidency, Putin never followed an unambiguous course. His support of liberal economic reforms was always coupled with attempts to strengthen authoritarianism and imperial ambitions. This came through strongest in attempts to restrict freedom of speech by forcing independent media outlets to submit to the state's will. It can also be seen in the Kremlin's efforts to rein in the State Duma and create a puppet party system.

Many critics of Putin have said that these contradictory policies cannot go on forever and that one or other course will eventually come out on top. But which one? Until just recently, it looked as if the authoritarian line was gaining ground, but now the situation gives cause for hope that this is not so.

Hope is not certainty, however. It is still unclear just what policies Putin wants to pursue. Regarding relations with the United States, it is not yet possible to say whether he is acting on a firm and definitive choice as to the principles he wants to follow, or whether he just wants to milk the opportunities of the moment.

As for the Georgian-Abkhazian conflict, there are obvious contradictions between Putin's statements and the anti-Georgian tone coming from some of the politicians close to him and from pro-Kremlin media outlets.

Nor is it clear what is behind Russia's decision to pay its IMF debt ahead of time. Has Russia changed its attitude toward its debt and its creditors, or is it just trying to strengthen its hand with the IMF ahead of possible instability in the world economy, when new loans might be needed?

For the moment, Putin is giving his policies a visibly more liberal slant in many areas, but the question "Who is Mr. Putin?" is still on the agenda.

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