Russia: Putin Looks Strong--but Can He Get Things Done?

He has presided over crackdowns on the media and tried to subdue independent-minded provincial governors. In his first 18 months as Russia's President, Vladimir V. Putin has moved to concentrate power in the Kremlin, a reversal of the Yeltsin years, when authority was divided among a hodgepodge of players. Putin calls it restoring the vertical vlasti--the vertical line of power. And after much-publicized incidents such as the ouster of the management of independent television station NTV, many in the West seem to believe Putin has accomplished his goal.

But appearances are deceiving. Putin is doing a better job of projecting an image of a strong leader than he is in bending the state to his will. The President is discovering it's profoundly difficult to establish a tsar-like reign in sprawling Russia. That's good for the cause of pluralism. But Putin's weakness is impeding progress on reforms key to improving the business climate. And it may make it harder for him to wage his own foreign policy.

Putin's weakness could have implications for President George W. Bush, who has called on the Russian President to join a dialogue on proposals for a missile defense system. Putin may be amenable to a deal, especially if it includes deep cuts in nuclear arsenals. But he is surrounded by defense hard-liners who distrust the U.S. In fact, they're proposing an aggressive alternative to talks: Equipping single-warhead missiles with multiple warheads to underscore that Russia can overcome any missile defense system. "Even if Putin wants to compromise, I don't think he is in a position to do it right now," says Pavel Felgenhauer, a defense analyst in Moscow.

Old-guard forces likewise threaten to block Putin's initiative to shift power from federal prosecutors to judges. The President believes this step is crucial to constructing an independent legal system. But Prosecutor-General Vladimir Ustinov has trashed Putin's plan for "unthinkingly copying the West." The current system allows prosecutors to pursue investigations without court authorization.

Meanwhile, many of Russia's 89 regional governors also are resisting Putin's authority. Many governors, who are popularly elected, rule with an iron hand--often in defiance of the Kremlin. For example, Tartarstan's leader, Minitimer Shamiev, recently took the oath of office for a third term on a local constitution that asserts his province's sovereignty. Federal judges ruled the constitution illegal, but Shamiev hasn't changed it.

CRAFTY. Then there's Gazprom, Russia's energy monopoly--a veritable state within the state. Putin's reform team, which aims to restructure Gazprom along market lines, would like to start by ousting CEO Rem Vyakhirev when his contract expires on May 31. But that's not expected, partly because Vyakhirev has craftily acquired leverage over Putin. It was Gazprom that engineered the takeover of NTV, which criticized Putin's policies. That may have been a favor to Putin, but now Gazprom possesses a nationwide TV network that can be used as a megaphone against the Kremlin. So Gazprom, which accounts for 5% of Russia's economy, is likely to remain opaque and unsupervised.

One lesson of Putin's presidency may be that it's impossible to forge a true "vertical line of power" in Russia, short of imposing dictatorship. That doesn't mean Putin is helpless. To gain support from democratic sources of resistance, such as the governors, he needs to become a more sophisticated bargainer. To smash unreconstructed Soviet-era entities such as Gazprom, he needs to wield the executive hammer--and make his case directly to the public. Otherwise, Russia faces the prospect of even more political and economic stagnation.

By Paul Starobin in Moscow

Edited by Rose Brady

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