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By The Telegraph Online
  • Published 29.03.00
Mr Vladimir Putin's first round winning of the Russian presidential elections marks the official end of Mr Boris Yeltsin's reign. There was little doubt about the results. Parliamentary elections three months ago had shown that the political winds were blowing strongly in Mr Putin's favour. Mr Putin's real strength lay in his control of the presidency. The Russian polity concentrates near dictatorial powers in the hands of the president. And Mr Putin used them to good effect. Most television channels ignored his opponents, including the only serious challenger, the communist leader, Mr Gennady Zyuganov. Helped by the present increase in world oil prices, Mr Putin was able to pay off months of unpaid government salaries and offer various populist sops. His strongest card was the Chechnya war. Though the Russian military campaign against the rebel province is slowing down, Russians were impressed to see a leader who could set policy goals and work to accomplish them. Mr Putin's campaign managers projected him as strong and silent. As acting president he made so few speeches and policy statements that there is considerable debate as to what he believes in. There is no doubt he supports the economic reforms initiated by Mr Yeltsin. He has said foreign investors will not be disappointed with the economic programme he is expected to announce soon. It is believed Mr Putin prefers a German model of state driven capitalism where government, business and labour elites jointly guide economic policy. Having lived in Germany when he was a spy, Mr Putin would be familiar with this system. Additionally, this would superficially mimic the mutant capitalism that already exists in Russia. The only problem is that in Russia, the elites dominating the economy are mafia groups, manipulative businessmen called the "oligarchs" and Kremlin schemers. The links between them and the Russian masses are tenuous. Russian civil society is in tatters, its populace so distrustful of politics that Mr Putin was worried low voter turnout would force a second round of polling. In part to counter the present elites, the new president's first priority will be to shore up the Russian state itself. At present the government is too weak to even collect taxes. If Mr Putin can slow down or even reverse the continuing decline of Russia he will do both his country and the world a favour. Russia retains a huge nuclear arsenal and straddles an important part of the Eurasian land mass. Its weakness has been helpful to no one. Even the West is wearying of spending tens of billions to stave off a Russian financial collapse. Mr Putin is a nationalist, but one who speaks of making Russia a modern nation in the Western model. He prides himself on logical thinking and pragmatism. He has said cabinet ministers will be chosen on the basis of merit, not ideology. The contrast to the boozy incoherence and impulsiveness of Mr Yeltsin could not be greater. Though Mr Putin has defended free speech and democracy, there are questions as to whether he will rule with as light a hand as Mr Yeltsin. A Russian president has the potential to be an autark. It is to be seen whether Mr Putin's economic concerns are matched by a faith in liberal politics.