Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

What Is Putin's Priority?

What lies ahead for Russia is no longer the dramatic choice of back to hell or ahead to a bright future. Rather, it is a long, unexciting, painstaking trek toward economic improvement. The appearance of the colorless figure of Vladimir Putin following Boris Yeltsin, who never lacked color or character, seems symbolic of this transition from big upheavals to tedious slogging.

Recent investigations by Russian and Western reporters have failed to come up with anything remarkable about Putin's personal life or professional record. People who knew him at various times in hiscareer remember him mostly as meticulous and unafraid of hard work. Those who have confronted him in later years add that he is quick to grasp complex economic subjects. (In a recent online article, Putin said that with luck Russia may hope to reach the current economic level of Portugal in 15 years.)

The more that is written about Putin, the less the chance that he will be found to harbor some sinister secret in his past of the sort that many in Russia (including myself) suspected because of his KGB background.

But just as there is nothing in the known record to suggest Putin is a bloody villain, neither is there anything to indicate that he is a proponent of liberal values. In fact, the democratically minded supporters of his presidential candidacy, among them veteran reformers Yegor Gaidar and Anatoly Chubais, have been clear about it: There are no guarantees that democracy will be his first priority.

Putin was never engaged in the fierce struggle between Communists and democrats that was the flesh and blood of Russian politics from the late '80s through the mid-'90s, and he does not share Boris Yeltsin's visceral hatred for the Communists.

Putin's first priority is bound to be economic reform - not because he understands the economy so well but simply because reform is the only way to pull Russia out of its disastrous condition. There is no going back to a state-controlled economy, if only because the state does not have the money to provide for even a small elite group that can be trusted to run it.

Likewise, Putin must seek to repair relations with the West, because isolationism would be deadly for the Russian economy and thus to his own standing.

The risks are obvious. Meticulousness and hard work probably won't prove sufficient to rescue such an economically devastated and corruption-ridden country. Oil prices, instead of being mercifully high, may suddenly begin to drop, thus dealing a fatal blow to an economy that relies almost exclusively - and maybe only for the time being - on oil exports.

Foreign debt, and a clash with powerful domestic interests if Putin pursues reform, might pose huge challenges and even raise the temptation to resort to undemocratic methods. This is especially so in a country where the new post-Soviet - and hotly disputed - Constitution gives the president tremendous, barely checked authority. Moreover, Putin does not seem to be the kind to resist too strongly the temptation to use such unchecked power when he thinks it necessary.

So the risk of encroachment upon liberal freedoms under Putin is real. But if that happens it will be a side effect of whatever his economic policies turn out to be, not an end in itself. Putin's performance will depend to a large degree on who advises him and how bad the situation actually turns out to be.

The question of his advisers became a burning issue this week when the pro-Putin Unity party joined in a shameless deal with Communists in the Duma over the posts of speaker and committee chairmen.

The deal alienated pro-reform parties - most of whom had pledged their almost blind support to Putin during the Duma race - and instantly turned them into an opposition.

Putin's deal-making with the Communists in the Duma is a nauseating sellout of reformers who had supported him. But it does not mean that he believes in communism. Rather, this is another sign that Putin believes in nothing, except maybe the idea of smooth governance for the sake of goals that are not quite clear, even to him.

Putin will be watched now to see how closely his concept of reform follows that of the liberals who have been advising him. He could be overwhelmed by Russia's all-but-insurmountable problems. He could do things that will be stupid, dangerous and damaging. The atmosphere in Russia could become even more unpleasant.

But it will not turn bloody. Nor will Putin seek to turn Russia into a police state. Over the past decade the Russian people have learned to cherish their private property and personal freedoms. The years of Yeltsin's rule hav e made a return to totalitarianism not only pointless but impossible.

Masha Lipman is deputy editor of Itogi magazine. She contributed this comment to The Washington Post.