Putin It Nicely

How you look at things.
Jan. 6 2000 3:30 AM

Putin It Nicely

On New Year's Eve, Russian President Boris Yeltsin abruptly resigned, leaving Prime Minister Vladimir Putin as the country's acting president. Everyone expects Putin to win the presidency outright in the upcoming elections. But what kind of man is Putin? His detractors say he's a KGB spy, a believer in centralized power, and a ruthless prosecutor of the war in Chechnya. And what do his defenders say? That each of these vices is really a virtue.

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1. He's a spy. Critics point to Putin's 15 years in the KGB, calling him a "KGB spy," "KGB agent," and "KGB colonel." One antagonist says Putin was dubbed "Stasi" (the name of the former East German secret service) for wielding behind-the-scenes power. Detractors use these terms to portray Putin as a Cold Warrior who can't be trusted with Russia's nukes. On television this weekend, U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and National Security Adviser Sandy Berger lent credence to this theory by arguing that Putin has "two strands": on one side, his KGB years, and on the other, his years as a "democratic reformer" in St. Petersburg.

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

Putin's allies reject the two-strands theory. They argue that his KGB experience actually reinforced his interest in economic liberalization. As Putin's spokesman explained on Meet the Press, "Mr. Putin worked in the West. That's a very positive point. … The people in the KGB, in some way, prepared perestroika … because they were very open and they knew the exact situation in the economy, inside Russia, and what was happening outside." Putin's former mentor in St. Petersburg, ex-Mayor Anatoly Sobchak, told the New York Times, "He is a convinced supporter of the market economy. … He knows the western model of economic and political life not as an outsider but from the inside."

This counterspin is already making headway. Putin returned from his KGB service "steeped in Western business knowledge," says the Times. On This Week, Times Washington bureau chief Michael Oreskes noted that according to Putin's colleagues, "In his years as a KGB agent in Europe, he learned a lot about Western business practices, and that may be exactly what he needs to understand to solve" Russia's economic problems.

2. He's a socialist. American skeptics worry that Putin might wield too much state power over the economy and society, thereby undermining both capitalism and democracy. Putin, however, sees the state as the protector of honest capitalism and true democracy. "Any attempt to exceed the limits of the law and Russia's Constitution will be decisively crushed," he warned in his New Year's Eve message. "Freedom of speech, freedom of conscience, freedom of the press, the right to private property--all these basic principles of a civilized society will be reliably protected by the state."

Putin's Russian allies, and even his enemies, agree that the chief threat to freedom in Russia today is too little power in the central government, not too much. But how can they make this case to the world's most powerful lender, the United States, in terms we can understand? By comparing Putin to former American presidents. "Putin has a wonderful opportunity to become for Russia what the Roosevelts are for America," Sobchak told the Times. The Times buys this analysis: "Theodore Roosevelt took on entrenched monopolies, helping small businesses to thrive and competition to flourish. Franklin Roosevelt reworked the federal government to aid the poor, improve education and create a less crash-prone financial system." Both men "amassed state power over the government and economy to shape the capitalistic system that exists today."

3. He's a strongman. Critics call Putin "cruel," a "dictator," and a "Russian Pinochet" who might suspend civil liberties to whip Russia into shape. They're particularly outraged by "Putin's War" in Chechnya. George W. Bush says he's "troubled" that Putin owes his popularity to the Chechen war. Bill Bradley and John McCain demand economic sanctions against Russia for its "brutal" assaults on Chechen civilians. On Meet the Press, Tim Russert said Putin had called the Chechen rebels "dark-skinned people who must be annihilated" and had warned that "they will be found in latrines and killed." Furthermore, Russert noted, "His first official visit … was to Chechnya giving hunting knives to the Russian military."

To make nice with Putin, U.S. officials have begun to rephrase complaints about the war. When asked about Russian "atrocities," they express regret about Russia's "actions." But they also frame the war as an unfortunate expression of a trait that could serve Putin well in other pursuits. When asked about Putin's vow to "annihilate" the Chechens, Albright called Putin "very determined" and "action-oriented." The media, too, have begun to use positive adjectives to describe Putin's conduct of the war: "aggressive," "tough-minded," "determined," "decisive," "uncompromising," "no-nonsense."

How, according to Putin's supporters, will these traits make him a good leader? First, he can halt Russia's slide into chaos. Putin frames the Chechen war as a struggle to rein in "terrorism" and "the breakup of Russia," a rationale for which Berger and Albright express sympathy. Second, he can confront cronyism. Critics portray Putin as Yeltsin's pawn, installed by Yeltsin's daughter and other cronies to safeguard their financial interests and shield them from prosecution for corruption. By underscoring his image as a fearless strongman, Putin defies this critique. He began by "firing" Yeltsin's daughter, eliciting oohs and aahs from the world press, even though everyone expects her to stay on as an informal adviser. In view of Russia's endemic corruption, American pundits are reconsidering whether a strongman president is such a bad thing. "Does he have the power and the will to take on the robber barons?" asked George Stephanopoulos on This Week. "Will he tax them? Will he crack down on them? Will he clean them up?"

Third, a ruthlessly efficient leader can win a ruthlessly efficient election and craft a ruthlessly efficient economy. Arguing for a quick end to the Chechen war, both Albright and Berger appeal not to Putin's mercy but to his political interests. "He now faces an election in three months," says Berger. "If the costs become too high for the Russians … this could become an albatross around his neck in March." Never mind morality. When asked whether the United States should oppose loans to Russia because of the war, Berger replies, "It's a premature question … because the predicate question is whether they get the economic reforms in order," at which point "we'll have to look at what's in our national interest." Here is an argument Americans can understand: We should judge Russia's president the same way we judge ours. "The test for Putin," says Berger, "is the economy, stupid."

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