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Actions to reveal more about Putin than images

By Steve Harrigan
CNN Correspondent

May 11, 2000
Web posted at: 1:00 p.m. EDT (2000 GMT)

This news analysis was written for CNN Interactive.

Putin striding alone along the red carpet to his inauguration as president of Russia on Sunday  

In this story:

Stronger for the contrast

Words and deeds


MOSCOW (CNN) -- One of this week's strongest images of Vladimir Putin was that of the new Russian president all alone, striding along the red carpet to his inauguration at the Grand Kremlin Palace.

No entourage, no wife, no guards. Just one man on his way to take on the responsibilities of office.

It was an image that, like much of the new leader's tenure in the spotlight over the past four months, was carefully choreographed. And it contrasts sharply with the reputation his predecessor attained for unpredictability in the waning months and years of his tenure.

Stronger for the contrast

Former President Boris Yeltsin knew the power of public images -- this was the man who stood on a tank defying a coup in 1991. But as his health deteriorated, it became impossible to predict whether he would even show up for most events.

On one occasion in 1998, a CNN crew went with the advance press to Germany for a scheduled Yeltsin visit, but the president never left Moscow.

Things could be even more unpredictable when Yeltsin did show up. His statements were sometimes difficult for his top aides to explain, and on several occasions the aides had to immediately disavow them.

On a visit to Finland once, Yeltsin called Japan a nuclear power and on a 1999 trip to China, one of his last excursions abroad, he made threatening remarks about the United States.

Putin smiles as he holds the identification card showing him as president, at the Central Election Commission in Moscow  

Toward the end of Yeltsin's presidency, journalists came to rely more on the remarks of his aides. At home and abroad the man who for many people was a symbol of Russia had become for others a source of ridicule.

Traveling with the new president is very different from traveling with the previous one. Press packets are distributed, and camera positions, photo opportunities and colorful events are staged well in advance.

All this so far appears to be working for Putin. After being plucked from obscurity by Yeltsin to be prime minister, the man whom virtually nobody had heard of a year ago is now the most popular politician in Russia, elected without a runoff over 10 competitors.

The Putin whom Russians in towns and villages across the country know is the Putin on television.

Putin taking the oath of office Sunday (top) to succeed Yeltsin (below, right) as president  

He is the man who gets into a fighter jet and flies to Grozny, where he is met by a general -- and a camera crew. He is the leader, in a sailor's uniform and greatcoat, who looks out over the ocean from the deck of a nuclear submarine. He is the bare-chested athlete practicing martial arts.

Television stations in Russia are owned, controlled or at least strongly influenced by the state, but it would be a mistake to exaggerate their power. The Russian people, after a decade of economic hardship, have grown more sophisticated and skeptical about the news they are presented.

Before he chose Putin, Yeltsin tried to find a successor several times -- Victor Chernomyrdin, Yevgeny Primakov, Sergei Kirienko, Sergei Stepashin. None took. Something about Putin, beyond photo-ops, did.

Words and deeds

Part of the reason Putin is now president may be a quality perceived by ordinary Russians as unpolished, unrefined, even rough, about the 47-year-old former KGB officer.

When the Russian army was battling Chechen rebels for the city of Grozny last winter, Putin made his now famous remark: "We will wet them, even in the outhouse."

In Russian criminal slang, "wet" means to kill. This one remark came to summarize Moscow's policy in the rebel province, and contributed immeasurably to Putin's popularity.

Clarity and force. A simple, brutal goal, and one in keeping with the views of most of the Russian people, who blame the Chechens for a series of apartment bombings last autumn that killed nearly 300 Russians.

Changes in Russia

Putin promises a simple, clear solution to a military problem, and the hope follows among the people that he can do the same thing with the Russian economy.

But on the ground there has been nothing simple or clear about Chechnya. A war that Moscow said would be over by New Year's shows no sign of ending soon. Ambushes have raised Russian casualties in recent weeks; Russian "control" over parts of the territory ends at sundown.

Inauguration fireworks over the Kremlin on Sunday  

The more important battle, for most Russians, will take place in and around the Kremlin -- if it takes place at all. It is the fight for control of the Russian economy.

Putin has assembled a team of economic advisers described by many analysts in Moscow as liberal, even radical.

There have been hints in the Russian media of extensive economic plans to reform the tax code and speed up the sale of private land.

And, most important if investors are to take a renewed interest in Russia, there are reports of plans to establish order and opportunity in an economy dominated by a small group of insiders -- the so-called oligarchs who built connections to the Kremlin by financing Yeltsin's re-election in 1996.

Is Yeltsin's handpicked successor a media creation who will carry on business as usual for well-connected oil barons and bankers? Or is he the legendary Russian strong hand, the good czar, who will sweep out corruption? Or is he yet another kind of leader?

Questions about what to expect from President Putin may ultimately be answered by watching Russia's progress toward a modern, global economy.

CNN: World News
CNN In-Depth: Russian Elections 2000

Russian Government
The Duma -- Russia's lower house of parliament
Vladimir Putin
Embassy of the Russian Federation in Washington, D.C.
CIA World Factbook -- Russia

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