Surveying his first year in office, Russian President Vladimir Putin has reason for some satisfaction. The political situation has stabilized, a withdrawal of Russian troops from Chechnya has been announced and the economy is growing. Russia faces a much brighter future than it has at any time in the recent past. All of that can be undone, however — and quickly. Mr. Putin’s record is more mixed than he cares to admit. Laying the basis for long-term stability, which will require him to check some of his instincts, would be his best legacy to Russia.
In his first state-of-the-union address, Mr. Putin proudly noted that the Russian economy grew 7.7 percent last year. Inflation, while still high, is under control. Russian leaders are confident enough to have turned down this week a one-year cooperation agreement with the International Monetary Fund and a structural industrial loan from the World Bank.
That may soon look like hubris. Growth is already slowing and is expected to reach only 4 percent this year. Mr. Putin acknowledged that Russia was riding the windfall from high oil prices, and the country’s reliance on resource exports and the neglect of industrial development was “a road to economic and social stagnation.”
The president called for radical reforms, but offered few specifics. He endorsed transparency and the rule of law, but those imperatives have clashed with his political agenda: consolidating power in the Kremlin. Mr Putin is very clearly a product of the security establishment; he prefers strong leadership and seems to have little tolerance for the rough-and-tumble of democratic politics.
Government attempts to rein in the media that have criticized him are troubling, as is the spirited prosecution of whistle-blowers and independent investigators of government malfeasance. Organized crime is a problem, but the government could strike a better balance between law-enforcement needs and the rights of individual citizens.
The best weapon against corruption and crime is a transparent and rational legal system. That will discourage bribery and eliminate the ability of officials to extract rents from honest citizens. Strengthening the rule of law would help attract investment, end capital flight — estimated to reach $20 billion annually — and increase tax revenues.
Mr. Putin can claim, with some validity, to have checked Russia’s political slide. Under President Boris Yeltsin, regional governors had claimed more power at Moscow’s expense. Mr. Putin has worked to bring the regions back under his control; his popularity, a product of his youth and vigor and the stark contrast with Mr. Yeltsin, has helped buttress his authority. That might yet prove fleeting, as the accident with the nuclear submarine Kursk demonstrated. The president showed his inexperience when he mishandled that incident. Hopefully, he has learned from his mistakes.
The more dangerous threat is the conflict in Chechnya. When he came to power, Mr. Putin promised victory over separatist rebels. He has largely succeeded, but at a terrific cost in terms of human lives and Russia’s international image. Although the fighting continues, he has pledged to begin the withdrawal of Russian forces. Unfortunately, Moscow’s scorched-earth tactics have only intensified the anger that fueled the dispute. As the recent plane hijackings testify, terrorist attacks within Russia are a real possibility.
When he focuses his attention beyond Russia’s borders, Mr. Putin has less reason for pride. Russia’s great-power status is more of an aspiration than reality. Relations with the United States are troubled and likely to deteriorate with a new administration in Washington that is less inclined to indulge Russian pretensions. Disputes over relations with third countries such as Iran will create more trouble. To Russia’s frustration, NATO expansion continues, as do U.S. plans to deploy a missile defense system.
Hopes for a better relationship with Japan have been checked by Mr. Putin’s unwillingness to use his political capital to strike a deal over the Northern Territories. The Russian president has had more success in building bridges with the government in Beijing, but that is more of a defensive maneuver than a bold diplomatic stroke. Russia’s only real leverage in Northeast Asia seems to be in Pyongyang, but the North Korean government knows the limits of Russian influence.
It will take some time before Mr. Putin can reconcile Russia’s power with its ambitions. The key to his eventual success is economic reform. Russia needs a strong and vibrant economy; that, more than its arsenal, will determine its place in the 21st century.
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