The Two Faces of Putin

He’s met with Tony Blair and shaken hands with the queen. Ted Turner has come to pay his respects, and so did Sandy Berger: Vladimir Putin, the new Russian president, even greeted Berger by speaking of the “warm, friendly, personal, and business relations” they had enjoyed when both were heads of their respective countries’ national security councils. Berger responded in kind. Putin, he replied (joking, one assumes), had become a “model for all national security advisers.”

The joviality will doubtless continue when President Clinton himself arrives in Moscow at the end of next week—and no wonder. Although an official economic plan hasn’t been published yet, words like “tax reform” and “foreign trade” have lately been tripping blithely off the president’s tongue. His new prime minister, Alexander Kasyanov, is known in the West as a competent debt negotiator. His new trade minister, German Gref, is a self-confessed economic liberal. Oil prices are up, and Western bankers in Moscow have been looking cheerier than they have in quite some time.

Skip the upbeat headlines and read the stories buried deep inside the “world news” sections, however, and you will see why not everybody shares this optimism. In the past two weeks alone, masked Russian “tax police” wielding machine guns have raided the offices of the MOST group, the one media company whose newspapers and TV stations have not wholeheartedly supported the president. A local Moscow TV station controlled by the mayor of Moscow, another cowed Putin opponent, looks set to be shut down, as does one of the main Internet servers. There has been rumbling about the revoking of licenses to foreign broadcasters who portray Russia, and especially its war in Chechnya, in a less than favorable light. And last week, Putin declared himself ready to fire elected provincial governors and dissolve regional parliaments if they fail to toe Moscow’s line.

Even for those who don’t care much about press freedom or the sanctity of local government (and, to be honest, most Western bankers don’t) there are other worries. A few weeks ago, Russia’s most prominent business newspaper, Kommersant, published an authentic-looking document that it claimed was the president’s real economic program: This version advocated greater control over foreign exchange, greater control over imports and exports, greater control, even, over foreign food aid, which had, in the words of one commentator, allowed the Americans to “gather information about our agriculture and our regions,” the better to “keep Russian agriculture on a level which would allow the United States to expand into our food markets.”

But if Russia’s president appears to be zigzagging back and forth between authoritarianism and liberalism, that is hardly an accident: Putin has in fact hired two very distinct teams of advisers. One group is best described as ex-KGB thugs, among them Viktor Cherkyesov, the man who was formerly in charge of arresting dissidents in St. Petersburg, Putin’s hometown. The other group consists of what the Russians call “young reformers” of the type admired abroad and despised at home. The two have neatly divided up the ruling of Russia: Shutting down newspapers is the work of the former group, while chatting up Ted Turner is the task of latter. Moscow analysts (read the best of them at the Moscow Times) speculate endlessly as to which group represents the “real” Putin: Either the thugs are being forced upon the well-meaning, mild-mannered president by powerful “interest groups,” or the reformers are a façade to cover up the real thuggery. Just as likely, however, is that Putin simply intends to keep both sets of policies running indefinitely, either because he doesn’t see the contradictions—nobody ever said the man is a genius—or because he thinks that this clumsy method is the best way to do a Gen. Pinochet imitation, running an authoritarian regime and a free-market economy.

If that is his aim, he’ll have plenty of support. If those lending money to Third World basket cases invariably come down with cases of “donor fatigue,” those dealing with Russia are now suffering a distinct case of “democracy fatigue.” A senior Moscow diplomat told a friend of mine, approvingly, that he fully expected Putin’s regime to resemble Ataturk’s “educative dictatorship.” Putin will find plenty of people in the West—not only bankers but ambassadors, politicians, even presidents—who prefer “stability” to genuine reform, however short-lived that stability may turn out to be.