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Many Questions About Background of Russian President Putin

by Scott Harris

He seems to place much stress on restoring order to Russia
As expected, Vladimir Putin, acting president of Russia, won the office in his own right in the March 26 national election. Putin, a former KGB spy, rose rapidly through the ranks of the Kremlin until former President Boris Yeltsin resigned on New Year's Eve and appointed the former KGB spy as his heir apparent. Putin's decision to take a hard line on Chechnya launching an all-out assault on Islamic rebels in the breakaway province immediately made him popular with citizens yearning for a strong hand.

Although international observers declared the election "free and fair," the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe expressed concern about the bias in both private and government controlled media during the campaign. Putin's only viable challenger, Communist party candidate Gennady Zyuganov, has charged the government of rigging the results.

Between The Lines' Scott Harris spoke with David Kotz, professor of economics at the University of Massachusetts, who takes a look at the personal history and politics of Vladimir Putin as he confronts Russia's devastating economic crisis and ongoing conflict in Chechnya.

David Kotz: 'Who is Vladimir Putin?' is the question everyone wants the answer to. He, of course, worked in the Russian security agency, the Federal Security Bureau. He has a background that does give one pause. Former President Boris Yeltsin picked Putin out of nowhere, seemingly, and made him prime minister last August. And when Yeltsin resigned Dec. 31st, he made Putin the acting president, thereby pretty much assuring Putin's election, because of the enormous power concentrated in the presidency.

Putin first moved into politics in St. Petersburg, formerly Leningrad, Russian's second city. And one reason some people believe that Yeltsin liked Putin as a potential successor to himself is that Putin worked for a time in the Federal Property Management Agency, which is the center of corruption in the Russian government that was in charge of managing the huge assets still controlled by the Russian federal government. Some speculate -- although there's no direct evidence -- that anyone who had a high level position in the Federal Property Management Agency in the early 1990s, was very likely involved in some, at best questionable, activities. Some think that President Yeltsin may have felt he would be safe being succeeded by Putin, because Yeltsin may have some of what Russians call compromising material on him, which Putin would not want revealed. Although, I must say nothing definite has come to light on this.

What gives people the most pause is that narrowly, Putin's background is as an intelligence agent. But his attitude and personality seem to suggest he is very much a law and order person with an emphasis on order, perhaps rather than the law. He seems to place much stress on restoring order to Russia. That in itself would not be bad if Russia became a more orderly society -- some wonder whether Putin, once elected, will have as much tolerance for individual and democratic rights.

Between The Lines: Since the demise of the Soviet Union, the Russian population has experienced something which can only be described as a depression. Lower living standards pretty much across the board -- lower life expectancy, lower birth rates -- except for the wealthiest sector of the country. What can you tell us about the economic policies Vladimir Putin will be pursuing in the months to come?

DK: Well, he has given very mixed signals on economic policy. Certainly that is what is on the minds of most of the Russian people --the terrible economic straits that they're in. As you say, they're suffering the worst depression of any major country in the last 100 years. Their economy has fallen by more than half and people's living standards have fallen by more than half. Putin is saying he will use the power of the government to get the economy running again and to get people back on their feet, and those are certainly welcome words.

On the one hand, he is suggesting that he will do such things as ban food imports into Russia. He stated that recently, which would involve a big departure from the neoliberal or free market policies that Russia has followed that have been such a disaster. But on the other hand, he states that he's going to continue the very same path of economic policy that the Yeltsin regime has followed before him, which suggests a very different approach.

So you can pick anything you want from among his recent statements. I believe that if he does turn out to be in the pocket of the new wealthy oligarchs in Russia, then he will continue the same economic policies which enabled those oligarchs to become rich, and which protects the oligarchs as they continue to leave Russia and salt their winnings abroad. On the other hand, he would have the power in his office, to turn to a very different policy aimed at trying to revive the domestic economy. He would have to make a break with the oligarchs to do so, but it's not clear what he'll do.

BTL: It seems that the Democrats and Republicans in Washington are hell bent on abrogating the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, thereby creating a new generation of weapons and a new arms race. What's your assessment of what a Putin regime would do in reaction to this?

DK: Well, they're very worried about what the United States is going to do on this issue and they see this as potentially aimed at them. I think they would feel a lot of pressure to build up the nuclear strength of Russia if this happens, and we could end up in a new arms race over this.

BTL: Is there anything you would like to add in conclusion?

DK: Well, it's sad that Russia, which showed such democratic promise at the end of the 1980s, has ended up with a system politically which is no more democratic than the Soviet system was before Mikhail Gorbachev. Vladimir Putin was chosen by one person, Boris Yeltsin. He is basically Yeltsin's anointed successor, and this is a far cry from most people's concept of democracy.

Professor Kotz is author of "Revolution from Above: The Demise of the Soviet System"

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Albion Monitor April 17, 2000 (

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