• 2000-03-30
The general questions being posed about the affirmation of Vladimir Putin as president of Russia on March 26 are "Who is he, anyway?" "What about this guy?"

Putin is accused of running his campaign without a platform of policies from the undefined territory that was not in the wings, but not exactly center stage while he awaited the full spotlight.
But Putin's past actions shed light on his defacto policies and identity.

As an arch strategist, Putin has smoothly maintained a delicate balance between courting the West and pleasing the Russian nationalists, his affair and maneuverings with whom have been crucial in putting him in the show.

While he refused to share military technology with China, a move welcomed by the West, and it looks like he may ink a missile treaty and affirm other arms-control measures, he has been able to appeal simultaneously to Russia's nationalists and those abroad who say Russia needs a liberal reformist and strong leadership. A showpiece of his determination is continuing the war in Chechnya against odds.

While he pleased Western journalists by insisting on the return of Andrei Babitsky, he has tightened down on the kind of press freedom enjoyed under Boris Yeltsin. Simultaneously he has demonstrated a willingness to shed blood to effect a transition from Yeltsin rule with a mechanical war to fit the need to consolidate his power.

We already know that while Putin pronounces the need for strong economic reform, he is willing to put human rights into the background by military force, or as put by Andrei Piontkovsky, a political analyst in Moscow, "Milosevic is Mother Theresa compared to Putin in reducing [bombing] Grozny to a modern day Dresden."

The present net result of last week's polling is that Russia had a democratic election and a leader got a mandate. Beyond that, time will tell whether Putin can turn the disaster that is Chechnya and another impending humiliating defeat despite a hotted-up military into a political solution and use market economy to turn the country's fortunes around.

Time will tell whether a 180 degree turn from Yeltsin's show will be the right trick.

Reform? Whether actual or promised, what we know is whatever the next act is, Putin will do it for the money - direct foreign investment, IMF loans or debt forgiveness to shore up the budget. On the other hand, a performance ungratifying to the West will give Putin the fallback defense of "I told you so."

Who is Vladimir Putin? We probably know, but it is fair and sporting to say we will have to wait and see.