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Russia Veering to West-Oriented Course
December 31, 2001

MOSCOW (AP) - When Vladimir Putin gives one of his rare smiles, there are lines and sags around his eyes that weren't there when he became president two years ago.

But the former KGB operative has put his own marks on Russia since rising to power after the surprise resignation of Boris Yeltsin on New Year's Eve 1999.

At first, Putin was seen as a leader who would try to reassert the Kremlin's Soviet-era place at the center of world affairs by resisting and undermining Western influence.

His regime spoke repeatedly and harshly against the eastward expansion of NATO. Russia cultivated relations with North Korea, Iraq and other countries unfriendly to the United States in a campaign that it said aimed at establishing a ``multipolar world'' to replace American dominance.

The Kremlin also vehemently objected to U.S. proposals to pull out of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and proceed with development of a missile defense system. Putin himself threatened to scrap all strategic arms-reduction treaties.

Yet, today Russia has forged remarkable new levels of cooperation with NATO, although still nominally holding to its opposition to the alliance's expansion. When President Bush gave formal notice of a U.S. withdrawal from the ABM treaty, Putin responded not by scrapping arms-reduction treaties, but by proposing even deeper cuts.

Since the Sept. 11 terror attacks, the Kremlin has redirected its foreign policy toward working with the United States and other Western countries - including its unexpected acquiescence to NATO nations basing warplanes in former Soviet Central Asia for the military campaign in Afghanistan.

The latter impressed even some of Putin's strongest critics, such as Andrei Piontkovsky, a columnist for the newspaper Novaya Gazeta.

``The man went to great political and personal risk for the sake of what he considered to be the true interests of Russia,'' Piontkovsky wrote last week.

Putin, whose demeanor is rarely anything but steely, has managed to make such policy changes without looking as if Russia is backing down or being inconsistent. Although firm whenever he speaks, he does not appear to be gripped by ideological insistence.

Cool pragmatism is a sharp contrast to Russia's years under Yeltsin, who by turns seemed visionary or barely lucid, and many observers regard it with clear relief.

``We are entering civilization. We have recognized that the United States is the only sphere of influence. We're not playing the game of 'a multipolar world' ... We are looking for our place in the world,'' said Igor Bunin, an analyst at the Center for Political Technologies, a think tank.

But that same pragmatism worries other observers. Putin increased the presidency's powers by pushing through measures that reduced the influence of regional governors, including taking away their seats in the Federation Council, the upper house of parliament.

``The system of restraint and counterbalance has been practically broken. The role of parliament is sharply weakened,'' analyst Lev Gudkov said in an interview with the newspaper Noviye Izvestia. ``Achieving such control over the Federation Council and the Duma (the lower house) allows the formation of a semi-authoritarian regime.''

His critics also point to the takeover of the only nationwide independent television channel by the Kremlin-connected natural gas monopoly and the closing or overhaul of some publications critical of Putin and his government.

The decline of independent-minded media has led to reduced coverage of what may be Putin's major weakness - the war in Chechnya, which has entered a third year with no end in sight.

Putin and the rest of the Kremlin refer to it not as a war but as an ``anti-terrorist campaign,'' drawing parallels between Chechnya and the U.S.-led campaign in Afghanistan. With that justification, it would be difficult for Putin to call a halt to the fighting even if he wanted to.

``Understanding that the hopeless situation, the continuing war in Chechnya, threatens his authority, it appears he simply doesn't know what to do,'' Gudkov said.

Although public anger and dismay were sharp during the first Chechnya war, in 1994-96, little reaction to the second war is apparent in public opinion. In a mid-December poll of 1,600 Russians, 73 percent of the respondents approved of Putin, the Interfax news agency said.

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