Russians Are "Ready To Accept An Iron Hand"

After weeks of relentless air strikes, thousands of Chechen civilians and Russian soldiers have died in the Kremlin's latest attempt to subdue its rebellious republic. Despite the specter of a protracted war, evidence of human-rights violations, and the reintroduction of Soviet-style press controls, Russians are cheering the man leading the campaign, Prime Minister Vladimir V. Putin.

His authoritarian approach has clearly struck a chord with Russian voters. Tired of humiliation abroad and a sickly President at home, they yearn for a decisive leader. "Apparently, I have simply hit the nail on the head. I'm doing what [people] have wanted for a long time," Putin boasted on TV. In a Nov. 6 poll asking Russians whom they would vote for in a presidential election, Putin led the pack at 29%, up from just 2% in September. Other presidential contenders, Communist Party leader Gennady A. Zyuganov and former Prime Minister Yevgeny M. Primakov, now trail him with about 20% each.

BIG SHIFT. Even if Putin flames out--for example, if the war becomes unpopular because of a rising army body count--a strongman now seems likely to win next July's presidential elections. "Society is ready to accept an iron hand," says Nikolai Petrov, an analyst at the Carnegie Moscow Center. "Democratic needs are on the back burner," adds Igor Mintusov, chairman of Moscow political consulting agency Niccolo M.

That's a big shift since the summer, when Primakov was the front-runner. At that stage, most Russians wanted ailing President Boris N. Yeltsin to be succeeded by a moderate elder statesman like the 70-year-old Primakov. That changed after a spate of terrorist bombings--which the Kremlin blames on the Chechens--claimed 300 victims in Moscow in September. Instead of the stability Primakov personifies, Russian voters now want a younger, more macho leader who can ensure their security. "Putin's willingness to bomb Chechnya suits the new public mood," adds Mintusov. Diplomats worry that the prominence now given to security by voters could translate into progress by anti-Western parties in December parliamentary elections and a more intransigent Russia on issues such as arms control.

MAKEOVER. An adulatory press has aided Putin's rapid ascent. The Russian media have changed the 47-year-old's image from that of a gray desk jockey and former KGB operative to a steely strategist and Rambo-style leader. With limited access to war zones, Russian TV has toed the government line slavishly, including flat denials of allegations from Human Rights Watch and the International Red Cross that the army knowingly targets civilians.

Indeed, Putin has used his rising political fortune to reinstate controls on the media. He let the newly created Press Ministry close two regional TV stations for allegedly unfair election coverage. And he has used the war to distract voters from economic and social problems. Money-laundering investigations and probes of Kremlin finances are totally out of the news.

The European Court for Human Rights and others are crying foul over the arrests and deportations of Chechen residents from Moscow. But most Russians have yet to bat an eyelid. That may change if Putin tries to redeem his pledge to continue the war until all Chechen rebels are crushed. Military experts say that will require extensive ground fighting, heavy casualties, and probably another defeat at the hands of Chechen guerrillas.

Political intrigues have already started against Putin inside the Kremlin, and Yeltsin may well fire him before the July election. But no doves need apply to replace him. If he goes, another young hawk is likely to be his successor.

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