The Putin Presidency

AFTER AN IMPRESSIVE swearing-in at the Kremlin on Sunday, the Putin Presidency has begun in Russia. Though he was already Acting President from January 1, Mr. Vladimir Putin launches his own innings now to rebuild a modern Russia to secure its rightful place in the international community. In only the second democratic election to the Russian Presidency, a smooth transition of power has taken place. Perhaps the best decision that an ailing and impulsive President, Mr. Boris Yeltsin, took was to resign on New Year's eve and install his Prime Minister, Mr. Putin, as the Acting President and anointed heir. As yet an unknown phenomenon, Mr. Putin has managed to hold his ground, evolve a working relationship with Parliament and initiate a major military offensive in Chechnya to crush what his administration called `Islamic separatism'. Now that he is on his own wicket, the former secret service agent of Soviet vintage must spell out his vision and plan for the reconstruction of the Russian Federation. With the people giving him an overwhelming mandate in the March election and rejecting Mr. Gennady Zhyuganov and his brand of communism once again, the expectations are bound to be high. Mr. Putin must outline his road map for the political and economic revival of Russia.

By choosing his First Deputy Premier, Mr. Mikhail Kasyanove, as the Acting Prime Minister, the new President may be signalling his economic policy and push for reforms. Assuming that the Duma obliges him with a straightforward confirmation of the next Prime Minister, Mr. Putin must still spell out how he plans to pull out the Federation from its present economic ruin, rise in crime, corruption and collapse of both the public sector as well as the social security systems of the Soviet era. More than the political and diplomatic forays, Russians must be looking forward to new economic initiatives that can trigger both a spurt in industrial growth and income generation for the people. Pseudo capitalism and economic exploitation have been the only gains of reforms till now and the Putin administration must work out a balanced development strategy that can allow the private sector to evolve and at the same time protect or cushion the poor from the short term effects of the restructuring programme. Thousands of employees have not been paid regular wages and crime as well as extortion seem to be the order of the day. While helping the poor to come to terms with the transition, he must stamp out the organised gangs to restore the rule of law.

There are signs of Russian activism on the international stage and also a hint at complying with past commitments. The recent ratification by the Duma of the START treaty with the U.S. signals the latter and also the control of Mr. Putin. The pronouncements of the Foreign Minister in Washington and the unambiguous warnings to the U.S. administration smack of new- found optimism in the future of the Federation. Even if Mr. Putin may have won his first battle in Chechnya, the scars are difficult to heal and questions on human rights violations remain unanswered. If Mr. Putin wants to create a multipolar world in the new millennium, his task is cut out. He must first consolidate Russia, forge a new partnership with the former Soviet Republics and enter into a dialogue with the European Union. Equations with the U.S., under a new President next year, will be another priority. Both China and Japan are courting Moscow in their own ways to build a new partnership. From an Indian perspective, Mr. Putin has promised to visit New Delhi later this year to provide new substance and direction to a strategic partnership that already exists. There are many economic and trade problems to be sorted out. His first few months and policy directions may give a hint of both Mr. Putin and his Presidency.