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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Putin Kept Russia on Its Toes in 2000

What a difference a year makes or does it?

As Russia marches into 2001, it has a vigorous president, a re-structured parliament and a new old anthem. The dealmaker who a year ago stage-managed political life has recast himself as a dissident and gone into exile. A once-powerful opposition force is now a Kremlin ally, while two historically warring liberal factions have begun a courtship dance.

But while some of the actors may have changed roles and the orchestra has struck up a Stalin-era tune, the tragicomic plot remains essentially the same. Little has been done to stamp out corruption or strengthen the legal system. Regional bosses continue to have almost unchecked power despite a much-ballyhooed Kremlin campaign to rein them in. The conflict in Chechnya rages on, with the death toll inching up daily.

In his first year in the Kremlin, President Vladimir Putin has consolidated power, creating the conditions necessary to make big changes in the way the country is run. But, despite radical talk and a wealth of legislative initiatives, he has been slow to upset the status quo. His main project restoring federal control over the countrys 89 regions was weighed down with concessions to the governors by the time it made its way through parliament.

Some had higher hopes for Putin. State Duma Deputy Vladimir Ryzhkov said he was disappointed that the new president did not take advantage of his broad support, loyal parliament and an economy boosted by high oil prices to push through real reforms in areas like land ownership, the military and labor law.

"Im afraid that there will not be such favorable conditions next year," said Ryzhkov, who was booted from the pro-Putin Unity faction this summer because his views did not always conform to those of the party leadership. "He wasted these favorable conditions on virtual victories."

The year began with an early presidential campaign, forced by Boris Yeltsins surprise resignation on New Years Eve. (Yeltsin Hands Power to 'Heir', Jan. 5, 2000.) Yeltsin had given his chosen successor a head start by quitting at a time when Prime Minister Putins approval rating was soaring thanks to his tough rhetoric on Chechnya and his image as a hands-on, no-nonsense leader.

Condensed into two and a half months, (Presidential Vote Scheduled for March 26, Jan. 6, 2000.)a quarter of the time usually allocated, the race felt like a symbolic effort from the beginning. Even as he declared his candidacy, Yabloko leader Grigory Yavlinsky said nobody could even hope to beat Putin.

As acting president, Putin said he did not intend to campaign. That didnt stop him from taking a whirlwind tour of the regions including a ride into Chechnya on a fighter jet. Ultimately, voters got a sense of Putins personality, but not his politics: He refused to reveal his platform, saying only that he favored a strong state. Candidate Putin was a convenient blank slate, and liberals, nationalists and communists all pinned their hopes on him.

The only intrigue in the race was whether Putin would be able to win in the first round or be forced into a run-off. His ultimate first-round victory, with 53 percent of the vote, came at a price. An investigation by The Moscow Times revealed widespread fraud in the March 26 election. Were it not for creative vote-tallying, ballot-box stuffing and bullying by local bosses, Putin would not have won in the first round. (See Election Fraud special report.)

Battling the Governors

The first-round victory was seen as a broad mandate for Putin to restructure the government and pursue reforms.

After his inauguration in May, Putin set about strengthening the "vertical line of power" his term for centralized authority over the far-flung and independent-minded regions. His first move was to carve the country into seven federal districts and appoint a representative to each one to help him keep an eye on the governors.( Putin to Tighten Grip on Regions, May 18, 2000.)

The presidential representatives have Putins ear, but no legal authority. Other measures against the governors seemed to have more teeth. Within three months, the Kremlin shepherded a federal reform package through parliament.

One of the new laws in the package created a mechanism for removing regional leaders who ignore federal laws, governing according to their own rules.

But so far, Putin has not used this powerful new weapon. Instead, he has opted to change federal laws to accommodate the governors. In November the Duma passed a bill in the first reading that would give some of the most controversial regional bosses the right to run for a third term, something strictly prohibited in the current law.

The Kremlins new levers have also failed to prevent regional mismanagement. As winter began in the Far East, tens of thousands of people had no heat. Only after weeks of protests and visits by Moscow delegations did officials begin to address the problem. But 4,500 people in Primorye are still without heat in their homes, Interfax reported this week.

Some predict the Kremlin may begin to take more action in the regions a year from now by jailing its least favorite governors. Another law in the package deprives governors of their seats in the Federation Council and the immunity from prosecution that comes with them.

But aside from stripping them of their immunity, it is unclear what the law accomplishes, since it allows them to appoint their representatives to the chamber. Governors worried about losing their bully pulpit in the capital neednt be concerned: They will be able to gather regularly in the new State Council, advising the president on key issues.

"The federal reform in many ways did not live up to expectations," said Vladimir Pribylovsky, head of the Panorama think tank.

Crackdown on the Press

At the beginning of the year, the latest war in Chechnya was already five months old. Eager to keep the correct spin on the war in the run-up to the election, Kremlin officials told the media they had an obligation to support the war effort and not to give air time to the rebels. They backed up the threat by temporarily excluding privately owned NTV the only national station to offer somewhat critical reporting on the war out of the military press pool.

More ominously, Radio Liberty reporter Andrei Babitsky was detained in late January. He was held incommunicado, traded to masked men who Moscow officials said were Chechen rebels and finally allowed to escape after five weeks in captivity. (Missing Babitsky Surfaces by Phone, Feb. 26, 2000.)

For many who were still giving the new administration the benefit of the doubt on press freedom, the springs events erased all illusions. In May, the offices of Media-MOST, NTVs parent company, were raided. A month later, Media-MOST owner Vladimir Gusinsky was arrested. After three nights in jail, he was released, but the governments battle for control of his empire continued. (Gusinsky Charged, Released From Jail, June 17, 2000.)

This month, Spanish authorities arrested Gusinsky, who has been living abroad, on an Interpol warrant. NTV director Yevgeny Kiselyov has warned that the Kremlin has a plan to liquidate the station on New Years Eve.

The Media-MOST fight has outraged liberals even those, such as Irina Khakamada and Boris Nemtsov, who had supported Putin. For some critics, it has confirmed fears that Putins KGB past would catch up with the country.

For one thing, they point to the governments information security doctrine, adopted in September. Journalists fear the doctrine and its emphasis on the "security threat" of misinformation and foreign influence in the media may serve as justification for more attacks on the non-state press. Many liberals are also disturbed by the rise of KGB and military officers to top posts in Putins administration.

"We are moving away from our basic values, away from the Constitution, in which rights and freedoms are the top priority, toward the state and state interests," said Duma Deputy Sergei Yushenkov. "We are seeing a return to the bright past."

Divorcing the Family

One question on analysts minds a year ago was what Putin would do about "the Family," the group of Kremlin insiders thought to be effectively running the country? When Putin was appointed prime minister in August 1999, he was considered a member of the Family and his appointment a product of its influence.

Putin has distanced himself from tycoon Boris Berezovsky, the man who for most people came to symbolize the familys backroom influence.

Berezovsky, who says he bankrolled the campaign of the Unity party in last years Duma elections, says he is being persecuted by the regime he helped create. Like Gusinsky, he remains abroad and says he has been pressured to give up his stake in government-controlled ORT television. Prosecutors have resumed their investigation into alleged corruption at Aeroflot and have sought to question Berezovsky in the case.

But Putin has been unable or unwilling to shake the Familys influence completely. He re-appointed Prosecutor General Vladimir Ustinov, who is considered close to the Family. Ustinov has used his powers selectively, targeting Gusinsky but closing the Mabetex corruption case, which touched the interests of Yeltsin and those close to him. Family member Alexander Voloshin remains Putins chief of staff, and Mikhail Kasyanov, another Family friend, is prime minister.

Still, when it comes to influence over the president, the Family faces competition from two groups economic liberals and so-called chekisty, former security officers and military men.

Rumors have been circulating about Kasyanovs imminent replacement. Voloshin reportedly clashed with Putin over the adoption of the Soviet-era anthem. Some analysts think an eventual break with the Family is inevitable.

A Teflon President

Putins high approval ratings have barely budged since his election. According to a poll taken this week by the All-Russia Center for the Study of Public Opinion, or VTsIOM, 68 percent of Russians approve of his performance as president. The age-old formula of "good tsar, bad boyars" seems to be at work; only 38 percent approve of the government?s performance.

Not that there hasnt been bad news this year. In Chechnya, for instance, an average of 200 servicemen a month lost their lives from October 1999 to October 2000. New casualties are reported almost every day.

"At the end of the year, the country is no longer counting its dead," Yavlinsky said in an interview on NTV this week. "The country is no longer paying attention to the hundreds of people who are dying weekly, monthly, in the North Caucasus."

Even Putins slow response to the tragic sinking of the Kursk submarine this summer has failed to damage his reputation. His initial decision to continue his vacation and his reluctance to accept international offers for help earned him scathing criticism in the media but failed to damage his approval rating in the long term.

"He was able to wiggle out of the situation," Pribylovsky said.

Politically, 2000 was Putins year, and the countrys major parties have struggled to redefine themselves in the new era. The Communists, who not too long ago were leading an impeachment drive against Yeltsin, have seen their familiar nationalist rhetoric taken over by Putin. In response, they have cozied up to the new administration, forming strategic alliances with pro-government factions in the Duma.

"The Communist Party has opted to take a reserved line in relation to Putin," Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov said this month at the partys congress. "Let him try to prove that his intentions are serious."

The Union of Right Forces, or SPS, which supported Putin during the election, has been distressed by the attack on NTV. Still, the party continues to sit on the fence, saying it is not yet clear which direction Putin will take.

But in a sign that they have reservations about the new order, SPS leaders have started building a coalition with Yabloko, the only party planted firmly in the opposition. Mortal enemies in the Yeltsin era, the two liberal factions have been pushed into each others arms.(Bill Would Wipe Out 90% of Parties, Dec. 14, 2000.)

Perhaps Putins most striking achievement this year was to drive his enemies either off the field or onto his team. But not everybody is impressed.

"The political class is weak," Ryzhkov said. "It wasnt very hard to do."