To no one’s surprise, Mr. Vladimir Putin won Russia’s presidential election Sunday. Although the acting president did top the 50 percent level, which allowed him to escape a runoff ballot, the narrowness of his margin was an eye-opener. The much-anticipated landslide never materialized, the Communist Party’s allegations of fraud notwithstanding. With nearly 47 percent of voters casting ballots against him, and 30 percent of the electorate abstaining, Mr. Putin cannot claim a convincing mandate. If he wants one, he must better the lives of all Russians.
Mr. Putin was plucked from relative obscurity to become prime minister in August last year. His KGB background suggested he would favor a strong-man approach to governing, and his robust defense of Russian nationalism and vigorous prosecution of the Chechen War has borne out those predictions. But beyond that, his policies are still murky.
He has refused to provide details of his economic plan, saying he needs more time to develop it properly. He rails against the corruption that has eviscerated the government and promises to break the grip of the oligarchs. Yet during his term in office, he has put little distance between himself and the businessmen who dominate the Russian economy. He calls himself a centrist while forming legislative alliances with the Communists.
In short, he tries to be all things to all people. The only constant has been the tough talk. The only certainty is that the new president is an unabashed nationalist, who wants equal treatment for his country in international affairs.
That is sufficient to win the support of a majority of Russian voters, but to keep it, he will have to improve the economy. That entails two things. First, he must diversify the economic base. Seventy-five percent of Russian export earnings come from raw materials. As long as that situation persists, the country will continue to be at the mercy of the markets. Russia has the intellectual resources to develop new industries, but it needs help. Foreign investors are ready to step in, but only if there is an end to corruption and a strengthening of the rule of law. That is Mr. Putin’s second assignment.
A strong man could do the job. But he must resist the temptation to run over human rights and short-circuit democracy in the process. And the rest of the world must make it clear to Mr. Putin that, while it is willing to do business with him, it will not turn a blind eye to his abuses. He may expect such tolerance, given the leeway Mr. Yeltsin received, but hopefully the world has learned from that mistake.
Perhaps more important than what Mr. Putin is, is what he is not: He is not the same man as Mr. Yeltsin. He is likely to be less impulsive and more consistent. The rest of the world may not agree with all his policies, but they do not have to. What is critical, however, is that the government in Moscow act rationally and predictably. Mr. Putin could deliver on that count.
Yet there is one crucial field in which Mr. Putin would do well to emulate Mr. Yeltsin. He should focus on improving Russia’s relationship with Japan. The former president may have been capricious, but he did improve the bilateral relationship. Mr. Yeltsin’s pledge to conclude a peace treaty between the two countries — which meant settling the question of the disputed Northern Territories — was the key. The timetable has slipped with the turmoil that followed Mr. Yeltsin’s resignation, but the issue remains a Japanese priority.
In a phone call to Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi after his win Sunday night, Mr. Putin said that normalization will continue to be his goal. If the president-elect is the pragmatist that he is thought to be, then that makes sense. Settling the Northern Territories issue is the key to future relations between the two countries. If that is dealt with in a satisfactory manner, then the door will be open to cooperation in other fields, especially Far Eastern development.
A parade of Western officials has ventured to Moscow and found Mr. Putin to be “a man with whom we can do business.” A cynic would counter that there have been remarkably few governments with which the West has not done business. The difference is that the president of Russia is someone with whom the West must do business.
Fortunately, the logic runs both ways. Mr. Putin needs the West if he is going to achieve his goals and find for Russia the status that he feels is its due. If he wants to reclaim his country’s lost place in the world, the path is clear. But if Mr. Putin’s election heralds a new era for Russia, then it should mark a new beginning for the West as well. Cooperate, but not at any cost. It is time to stop seeing our own reflection when looking at Russia and understand what is really there.
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