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Russia's billion-dollar question: Who is Putin?

Jill Dougherty

By Jill Dougherty
CNN Moscow Bureau Chief

January 13, 2000
Web posted at: 11:44 a.m. EST (1644 GMT)

This news analysis was written for CNN Interactive.

Yeltsin and Berezovsky
Boris Yeltsin (top); Boris Berezovsky (bottom)  

In this story:

Chechnya the key

Economically untested

A political balancing act

(CNN) -- It was almost like old times. An awards ceremony last Sunday at the Bolshoi Theater in Moscow, with Russia's cultural elite in glittering attendance and Boris Yeltsin and his wife, Naina, basking in the glow. Even super-rich businessman Boris Berezovsky was there.

But Yeltsin wasn't president anymore, and the man who is the acting president was conspicuously absent. Vladimir Putin didn't show up. Was it a deliberate signal that he's distancing himself from the Kremlin "family" of insiders? Or was he just too busy running the country, as the official explanation had it?

The 47-year-old Putin, a judo expert, is choosing his moves carefully. He has just over 10 weeks to do so until the March 26 presidential election. With no other candidates appearing as viable, he looks like a shoo-in. But in Russian politics, a week can be a year.

Chechnya the key

Up to now, Putin's key to the Kremlin has been the war in the breakaway region of Chechnya.

With icy determination as prime minister, Putin spearheaded an imitation-NATO battle plan, heavy on air strikes, in order to minimize casualties from hand-to-hand combat. That strategy allowed Russian troops to capture half of the breakaway region -- and shot Putin's political ratings sky-high.

Now comes the hard part: With the battle moving from the countryside to the capital of Grozny, can Russian forces on the ground take the city without taking major losses?

Acting President Vladimir Putin, this week in Moscow  

VideoAn exclusive interview with Putin December 30th, when he apparently didn't know of Yeltsin's resignation. (December 31)
Windows Media 28K 80K

Economically untested

On another front, Putin has yet to test his "key" in the lock of the Russian economy. Thanks to Chechnya, in the five months since he was named prime minister, Putin has been spared dealing with economic matters -- an albatross that sank a succession of previous prime ministers.

Now, as acting president, Putin no longer has the luxury of being a one-issue leader.

In office since Yeltsin resigned December 31, Putin has yet to outline a concrete economic strategy. But the heat is on: Critically needed international lending to Russia remains on hold, and the country's economic levers remain in the hands of the so-called oligarchs, the term popularly used for businessmen who control vast areas of the Russian economy.

Putin's initial steps seem to indicate a man willing to put the squeeze on big companies that have avoided paying taxes. He has proposed ending special tax breaks for some raw materials producers -- a crucial step if the government is to fill its empty coffers.

And Putin's moves suggest some political savvy: In a bow to Russian retirees, Putin has proposed increasing pensions.

A political balancing act

Politically, will Putin stand up to Russia's special interests?

Yeltsin may be out of the president's seat, but many of the elite with special ties to the Kremlin remain.

This week, for example, Putin moved aside Pavel Borodin, a senior official who ran the massive network of Kremlin residences and buildings. But Anatoly Chubais, mastermind of Yeltsin's 1996 re-election campaign and head of Russia's electric company, is still a potent force. Putin owes his job as prime minister to recommendations by Chubais and other insiders. And Putin is known for his loyalty -- the rock-solid loyalty of a former KGB spy.

On this front, Putin's direction is not entirely clear. One of his first official steps as acting president was to grant Yeltsin immunity from prosecution for any alleged corruption, a move of critical importance to Yeltsin and his family, who are being investigated for as-yet-unproven financial improprieties.

But Putin also fired the president's daughter, Tatyana Dyachenko, Yeltsin's image-maker and closest adviser, a publicly popular move but one that could be interpreted as a shot over the bow of the Yeltsin camp.

Russian soldiers
Russian soldiers atop an armored personnel carrier  

It is this kind of delicate political balancing act that some analysts in Moscow predict will be the hallmark of Putin's next 10 1/2 weeks. That is, he must take the steps that will guarantee he can take over the presidency for real come March, but not burn bridges with the people who put him in power in the first place.

Putin, after all, had no political base behind him when he was plucked from obscurity to serve as Yeltsin's prime minister a mere five months ago. The political party he supports, Yedinstvo (Unity), was created from nothing by the Kremlin just three months ago.

So Vladimir Putin, like the master judo wrestler he is, must thrust and retreat, leveraging all his strength to keep in balance. This week, nearly 200 of Russia's movers and shakers, businessmen and politicians jumped on board the Putin presidential bandwagon by formally asking him to run.

Will he be their political captive or master? The answer may not be known until Putin has won that black belt of politics -- election in his own right.

CNN Interactive: Analysis

CNN Interactive: World

Interfax News Agency
Russian Government Internet Network
Chechen Republic Online

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