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San Jose Mercury News
December 16, 2001
Russia: 10 years after the fall
By Mark Ames
MARK AMES is an editor of the Moscow-based newspaper the Exile and co-author of ``The Exile: Sex, Drugs and Libel in the New Russia.'' A San Jose native, he has lived in Russia since 1993. Ames, whose work has appeared in Harper's and the Nation, wrote this article for Perspective.

He was the first leader to call President Bush to pledge solidarity and support. Over the objections of his generals, he also offered crucial intelligence and gave the green light for the U.S. military to use bases in what Moscow still considers its sphere of influence, the former Soviet republics in Central Asia.

Putin may well have been moved by America's tragedy, but he no doubt also foresaw -- with surprising speed -- the advantages to be gained from siding with the United States when it felt vulnerable. So far, his actions seem to be paying off.

The Bush administration is busy formalizing its own ``paradigm shift'' toward its former adversary. And although Secretary of State Colin Powell's recent trip to Moscow ended without a compromise on the ABM treaty, the United States has championed closer ties between Russia and NATO. More important, the Bush administration no longer fetes Chechen separatists or criticizes Putin's crackdown on democracy and press freedom.

Meanwhile, the American media, which had treated Putin with suspicion and scorn until Sept. 11, have suddenly fallen for the diminutive ex-KGB apparatchik with a kind of reckless emotional zeal bordering on teen-magazine fandom. (The Los Angeles Times crowed ``Wow!'' in a recent editorial singing Putin's praises. And a Boston Globe columnist went so far as to call the former spy with the ``Mona Lisa smile'' hot.)

Russia-watchers have been shocked by the changes -- especially by Putin's move away from a foreign policy focused on countering U.S. hegemony to one of nearly unbridled alliance. Just months ago, he was threatening to forge a loose alliance with China, North Korea and Iran to counter U.S. strength.

And it wasn't just the policy shift that startled pundits; the bold style was also new. Until the terrorist attacks, Putin had changed things slowly and quietly, without the political earthquakes and bluster of his predecessor, Boris Yeltsin.

But a closer look at Putin the politician reveals that his pro-American shift is consistent with the contradictory, adaptable political character he has revealed since he rose from obscurity just 2 1/2 years ago.

That style has worked well in blunting criticism and building popularity at home. Now, it may also allow Putin to pursue a vision of his country that is pro-Western enough to gain economic advantages from the United States and others, but independent enough to make Russians feel they are not kowtowing to America.

Taming the oligarchy

When Vladimir Putin was named to replace Sergei Stepashin as Russia's prime minister in August 1999, it seemed to be another of the ailing Yeltsin's increasingly desperate and irrational moves. Putin, who briefly headed the group that succeeded the KGB, was the third prime minister in almost as many months. Yeltsin, and the clique of corrupt officials and ``oligarchs'' who made off with Russia's richest assets during the 1990s, worried that power could soon fall into the wrong hands. They stood to lose everything.

So they chose Putin, a relative unknown with a reputation as the oligarchy's tool. He had worked as a deputy to a famously corrupt mayor of St. Petersburg, Anatoly Sobchak, and later as deputy to the head of the Kremlin Property Administration, Pavel Borodin, who was subsequently indicted in Switzerland for money laundering.

Four months after being named prime minister -- in what now appears to have been a bloodless coup -- Putin became president as Yeltsin resigned. Less than a year later, Putin forced one of his own key supporters, Boris Berezovsky, into exile with a warrant out for his arrest on suspicion of misappropriating funds.

The elite now has to live by certain rules, and the key rule is that no one is to cross President Putin. If he wants some portion of corporate taxes paid, taxes will be paid; if he wants good press, he gets good press.

Like Putin's abrupt turn to America three months ago, this taming of the oligarchy came as a surprise, not only to pundits and Russia-watchers, but also to the very people who put him in power.

The crackdown made him popular among the people, who had watched their country being looted as they faced real deprivation. And it clipped the wings of a powerful force that could have, if left unchecked, unseated him just as easily as it had installed him. But while the crackdown succeeded in strengthening Putin's power and served to redistribute choice assets to his friends, it wasn't nearly broad enough to make a dent in Russia's endemic corruption.

Charm and adaptability

Perhaps the most impressive thing about Putin -- beyond his uncanny ability to charm even past enemies -- has been his extraordinary ability to adopt and co-opt contradictory positions and ideologies. And he has done so while still being perceived as a decisive, resolute leader.

Putin proved this in his first months of power, when he preached both the nationalist rhetoric of extremist Vladimir Zhirinovsky and the Western-oriented rhetoric of the liberals. He talked not only about restoring Russia's power, but also about creating free markets. He used underworld language to gear people up for the war in Chechnya (``We'll whack them even in the outhouse!''), then spoke calmly about streamlining Russia's tax code.

It worked.

From the moment Putin took over as prime minister, he appealed to several mutually hostile groups at once: the nervous oligarchy, the humiliated nationalists, the weakened pro-Western ``reformers,'' and even many of those nostalgic for the Soviet Union. In the 2000 presidential elections, Putin was supported by most of the liberal intelligentsia, as well as the corrupt business elite, the powerful bureaucracy, and nationalists as far right as Alexander Prokhanov, a friend of David Duke's.

All have since been let down to one degree or another. Liberals decry the tight control of the press and the restoration of the Stalin-era national anthem; the oligarchs don't like paying even a small portion of their taxes; and Prokhanov no longer believes Putin is the next Stalin. Yet all defer to Putin as their leader.

To liberals, he is a free-market champion and well-spoken intellectual; to the remaining oligarchs, he is a protector of stability and safety for their stolen goods; to the nationalists, he is a hero for his war against separatists in Chechnya and for standing up to the West. Even Jewish groups profess affection for Putin, the first Russian leader to publicly light a menorah.

Putin's recent alliance with America in its war against terrorism -- while tipping the balance for many Russians too far to the liberal end of the spectrum -- hasn't seriously affected his broad appeal. Despite some melodramatic grumblings among nationalist and communist politicians, his moves are unlikely to weaken his support in any meaningful way. That is, unless the Bush administration slaps Putin in the face one too many times; the U.S. announcement last week that it intended to unilaterally withdraw from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty could be viewed as the first such rebuke.

Benefits of alliance

Many in Russia are asking what Putin has gained for all of his reaching out to the West. After all, NATO is still refusing to let Russia ride in the front of the bus with it, and America is still planning to scrap the ABM treaty. U.S. troops are crawling all over Russia's back yard, in Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, and Russia is still deep in debt to the West.

But Putin's alliance with the United States has also yielded benefits. For one thing, Putin has won the affection of the American public and media, which will produce dividends now and down the road. Putin won us over not by groveling for handouts like Yeltsin did, but by giving us the impression that he'd take a bullet for us. Americans are suckers for that. In just one day, in one phone call, Putin earned more good will than Yeltsin and his bear hugs did in nine years.

America doesn't just tolerate Putin for realpolitik's sake the way we are willing to tolerate, say, the Northern Alliance. No, Americans really like Putin. We want to be his friends.

Beyond that, Putin has already secured some huge rewards for himself, and for Russia. First, the Taliban, which Russia viewed as the second-greatest threat after Chechen separatists, is now out of power in an operation paid for mainly with American dollars and Afghan blood. The group's defeat made it less likely that Islamist extremism would spread to Russia's southern borders anytime soon. And suspected Chechen terrorist camps inside Afghanistan, meanwhile, are thought to have been destroyed in the war.

Second, Russian oil companies, run by the country's most well-connected tycoons, are poised to become world players now that the West is looking more seriously at lessening its dependence on Middle East crude. Russia's decision to hold off OPEC oil cuts in order to keep prices low wasn't just a friendly gesture to a superpower in need; it served a practical, selfish purpose. It endeared Russia's oil companies to big buyers in the United States.

Perhaps most important for Putin, his recent overtures to the West have given him more freedom to do as he pleases within his own borders. U.S. criticism of the war in Chechnya is now almost absent, while the recent crackdown on the last quasi-independent television station barely raised a peep.

Vision for Russia

Putin's ingenious handling of his internal enemies -- as well as of public opinion at home and abroad -- provokes the question: To what end has he acquired so much power and popularity? And how does his bold alliance with America fit into this vision?

Because Putin has been so hard to nail down, and because he has so successfully confounded all his observers, it would be almost reckless to guess what his real intentions are. Still, there is a certain pattern to his actions that provides clues of what he wishes for Russia.

In a place where the employee was valued above the employer for decades -- at least in theory -- Putin's policies are unabashedly pro-business.

New land and labor codes, as well as laws sharply reducing corporate and individual income taxes, have won favor from big business here and from foreign investors. The labor code (which has yet to pass a second reading in the Duma) would let businesses pay workers in barter. It also allows up to 56-hour workweeks with the ``consent'' of the employee.

But Putin has also shown himself to be a Soviet-style patriot and disciplinarian.

He has worked to eliminate opposition, enforce social obedience and remilitarize society. A decree he issued late last year calls for the re-introduction of Soviet-era military training for all 11th-graders. Meanwhile, a powerful new youth group, ``Movement Together'' -- something like the Soviet-era Komsomol -- has been formed to whip up support for Putin with pro-Kremlin protests by youths enticed with free train tickets and swimming lessons.

And the upper house of parliament has been converted into an obedient rubber-stamp committee, while the once-rowdy lower house, or Duma, now rarely confronts the Kremlin.

Taken together, those and other moves by Putin suggest that he is intent on styling a more modern and economically vital Russia, but not one that is in the image of the West.

In the end, Putin, and his appointed elite, not to mention his electorate, would rather be doing business -- and vacationing -- in the West than in Pyongyang, North Korea. By capitalizing on the events of Sept. 11, Putin may succeed where his predecessors failed: He may at last have set the course for access and acceptance to the West's wealth and technology without sacrificing too much of Russia's independence or prestige.

With his unique gift for politics, he seems to have found a way to accomplish those goals not just by imposing fear at home and abroad, but also by engendering heartfelt support for himself and his country.

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