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#3 - JRL 7238
The Times (UK)
June 24, 2003
Putin is the strongman that the Russians need
He frightens liberals, but his steely style has made his country happier
By Michael Binyon

President Putin is the best Russian leader since Tsar Alexander II, the last to arrive here on a state visit in 1874. He is not the most powerful: that stigma belongs to Stalin. Nor is he the most honourable: Mikhail Gorbachev, a courageous but naive politician, will be remembered as the man who gave Eastern Europe its freedom. He is not even the most visionary: Boris Yeltsin, rambunctious, unpredictable and at times incoherent, had a dogged commitment to freedom. And no one could accuse Lenin, the malign lawyer from Siberia, of lacking ideas. But Vladimir Putin, in power for only three years, has probably done more already to consolidate freedom and set his country on the right course for the future than any leader since Alexander II freed the serfs. The Queen will not be welcoming a liberal with a belief in democracy and a trust in human nature. Putin is a KGB man with KGB instincts. He is suspicious, manipulative and dour. He is disciplined, authoritarian and allergic to criticism, however oblique. Yet he is also a realist a man obsessive about detail who knows how power operates and has a feel for the views of the ordinary Russian. And he is smart enough, and sober enough, to understand that opportunities come to countries and leaders only occasionally. And when they come, they must be grasped.

One of the mysteries to outsiders is why Putin remains so popular, with an approval rating still well over 70 per cent and an overwhelming victory likely in next years election. The answer lies in the situation he inherited. By the end of Yeltsins reign, Russia was in a mess. Freedom had been terribly abused. The collapse of communism had left the country without any functioning bureaucracy. A few unscrupulous opportunists had exploited the economic changes to enrich themselves at the expense of the many. Corruption was rife, crime seemed out of control and a deeply conservative people looked on in bewilderment as the past was excoriated and the future mortgaged.

Putin knew that his first task was to restore order and respect for Russias institutions. Within weeks of his election victory, he had picked a fight with two of the most egregious oligarchs Boris Berezovsky and Vladimir Gusinsky and given warning to Russias headstrong governors that they could no longer run their distant provinces as independent and corrupt fiefdoms.

Restoring order, however, was only a prerequisite for reform. It was hard-fought, and sometimes costly. Putin had to use all the guile of his past, the patience of his training and the brute force of his office to get his way. Press freedom, individual liberty, the independence of non-governmental organisations and the development of a proper democratic party system have all been casualties along the way.

But the challenges were daunting. Russia needed a crackdown on crime, a new legal framework, a system of contract law, a rational and enforceable tax system, a workable balance between the centre and the regions, wholesale reform of the military, an entrepreneurial culture, an industrial revival and a foreign policy commensurate with its interests and its power.

On the whole, Putin has made an impressive start. However, the reform of the judiciary and the war on crime, have yet to show results. In others areas, such as the restructuring of the army and the ending of national service, there is a long way to go. But in countless other ways, life in Russia has calmed down and become more predictable. That is what voters want.

Ask Russians how Putin is doing, and the answer varies. The man in the street is content that he appears resolute, sober and, above all, authoritative in the way Russians have traditionally expected of the Kremlin. Ask a businessman, and he is happy that markets are opening up, travel is common, private enterprise encouraged and a new business-friendly culture with the emphasis on high technology and transparency gradually taking hold. Ask a bureaucrat brought up in the Soviet system, and he is glad that much of the past has been rehabilitated: the old national anthem restored, past achievements acknowledged, the former administrative system largely reinstated and, above all, the top-down transmission of power reinforced. Ask an intellectual, and he is horrified: he cites Putins persecution of the press, dislike of debate, attempt to control the non-governmental sector, authoritarian instincts and, especially, brutal conduct of the war in Chechnya. The urban intelligensia is deeply alienated. It accounts for no more than 10 per cent of the votes. But overwhelmingly it is the sector that has the ear of the West.

Putin, however, knows better than those inside the Moscow ring-road what motivates Russians. He knows the importance of paying salaries on time, making bureaucrats accountable, cleaning up public administration, curbing the oligarchs and restoring a modicum of national pride. He has been helped enormously by the oil boom and an economy growing at 7.1 per cent a year enough to cushion the most painful effects of reform. He knows also that stability is the best way to allow a new generation to emerge and realise middle-class aspirations of a better flat and a decent job. This, in the end, will be the real and lasting reform.

More importantly, however, he has grasped the strategic opportunity presented by September 11, reorientating Russia decisively towards the West, forcing the old guard to end Soviet delusions, and making Russias future integral to Western stability. Much still needs to be done: the rotting countryside, the stultifying bureaucracy, endemic corruption and pusillanimous political culture. Putin is neither nice nor gentle. He has been compared to Pinochet. But he has already made Russia richer, happier, more stable and more able to realise its untapped resources. That is more than any of his predecessors did in a hundred years.

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