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Boston Globe
June 21, 2003
Putin's paradox: In public, he's boss; behind scenes, he takes political cues
By David Filipov, Globe Staff

MOSCOW -- It seemed fitting for President Vladimir Putin to start his annual news conference yesterday by congratulating a Siberian family he visited last year for following his instructions to have a baby.

No one publicly challenges Putin's authority, not big businesses, lawmakers or regional bosses, let alone the increasingly docile media or fractured political opposition. Nearly every important decision in ''Russia in the Time of Putin,'' as one Moscow radio station half-jokingly puts it, somehow involves the president.

Analysts call it ''managed democracy,'' and when Putin gets involved even in such personal decisions as when to have children, it does not seem so far-fetched.

But while Putin takes great pains to show who's boss, some analysts say that he himself often takes cues from behind the scenes by the country's business and political elite, whose support is crucial for parliamentary elections in December and Putin's reelection next March.

For all his popularity with voters, Putin is often forced to compromise with entrenched bureaucracies and federal ministries that often act independently of Kremlin policy, oligarchic business leaders who control 70 percent of the economy, regional governors who pay lip service to Moscow while pursuing their own policies, and the security and military elites who provide the spear tip of Putin's power.

This approach severely compromises Putin's stated goal of bringing Russia into the group of modern, market-oriented democracies and helps explain how the liberalizing reforms that Putin pushes in all of his major speeches have meant few improvements for his people, despite an economic boom fueled by the high price of oil.

''One could more properly speak of the Virtual President, or Virtual Putin, since the power centers are popularly seen to be carrying out Putin's wishes even when they act against each other, against him, or are otherwise obstacles to the achievement of what Putin says he wants,'' Donald Jensen, director of communications for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty in Washington and a former US diplomat in Moscow, said in a recent e-mail interview.

An example was Putin's decision this week to promote the scandal-tainted governor of St. Petersburg, Vladimir Yakovlev, to the post of deputy prime minister in charge of reforming Russia's decrepit housing and utilities infrastructure.

Yakovlev, an erstwhile Putin foe, is accused of misallocating government money while doing little to improve the miserable housing situation in Russia's second city. His new job is to fix the problem for the entire country. Ignoring official inquiries into Yakovlev's alleged wrongdoing, Putin instead bestowed upon him a medal for his service.

Putin suggested yesterday that such personnel decisions reflected the absence of suitable alternative candidates.

''We don't have that many managers,'' Putin said in response to a question from a Russian reporter that alluded to Yakovlev's appointment without naming him.

But analysts said the rationale for shuffling a well-connected insider like Yakovlev rather than firing him went beyond the public need.

''It is wrong to create a critical mass of enemies and ill wishers within the political elite,'' commentator Viktor Loshak wrote in Moscow News following Yakovlev's appointment. ''Cushy but unnecessary posts with lofty-sounding titles are the Putin-era tribute imposed on the state budget to pay for a certain measure of political stability.''

Yakovlev was not Putin's first appointment of expediency.

In May, Putin named to his Security Council Yevgeni Nazdratenko, a former governor in Russia's Far East who was the subject of widespread allegations of mismanagement and ties to organized crime. Putin removed Nazdratenko as governor in 2001, amid criticism of his handling of the region's fishing industry -- and then put him in charge of Russia's fisheries. Putin fired him from that post in February for mismanagement.

Analysts called Nazdratenko's latest appointment a sign that Putin preferred to keep the influential former governor satisfied in Moscow rather than turning him into a political opponent.

Russians often refer to Putin as the leader who has brought back Soviet symbols and institutions to bolster Russian pride and reinforce his healthy 70 percent approval rating. He has restored the Soviet national anthem, the Russian army's red banner, student military training, and various ''patriotic indoctrination'' programs in schools.

The return of such symbols has not led to curbs on freedoms of speech, travel, and public protest that Russians won when the Soviet Union collapsed. Instead, rights groups say, civil liberties are being eroded by what Washington-based Freedom House calls the ''lack of commitment to democratic consolidation.'' In Russia, the nonprofit prodemocracy group said in a recent report, power ''is found not in the competing branches of government or the interplay of political parties, but in the proximity of groups to the executive.''

Lilia Shevtsova, in her recent book ''Putin's Russia,'' describes this system as a paradox that explains the origins and limits of the president's power. On the one hand, she writes, Russia's parliament has become an extension of the Kremlin, political parties have been weakened and co-opted, elections are manipulated by security services, and the authorities have for the most part intimidated the media.

To maintain support among the oligarchs, federal bureaucracy, and military and security services, Putin has to forge coalitions among these elites who are mainly interested in protecting their own economic interests.

''Bureaucracy, business, and politics are all one in this rare blend of corrupt governance,'' wrote the English-language Russia Journal in a recent editorial, ''in which all state power is rhetorical and all service to the people minimal.''

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