The Acid-Bath Solution

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MARCO DI LAURO--AP

Everything about Vladimir Putin--his choreographed public appearances, his rigid media management, his appointment of supergovernors to keep the regions under control--suggests a control freak. Yet his presidency has been marked by a series of gaffes that have undermined his image abroad and caused storms of anger at home. Instead of cleaning up politics, his many critics say, he has created a mess. In some ways, they are right. But there is another side to the story. Putin's tactics have gone down well in a country where many Russians would happily turn the clock back to the pre-Gorbachev era. His attacks are more consistent than they may appear at first. He targets people who have crossed him or people who in one way or another are perceived as pro-Western. The message too is constant: Challenge me, and your life will be very unpleasant.

The arrest of media millionaire Vladimir Gusinsky was the most high-profile move by Putin. Following an outcry by people who saw the arrest as an affront to Russia's press freedom, he backed off--slightly. Gusinsky is still under investigation and threatened with slow ruin as creditors call in loans and executives flee his TV network. That battle strategy--a fast poke followed by a slow, acid-burn death--seems to be the Kremlin's new tactic.

Some say the new President is being ill served by aides, that these lash-outs are products of old-style thinking that Putin is trying to reform. This does not hold water. The excuse was first used in February, when a Russian journalist was arrested and handed over to pro-Russian Chechens. Since then, it has cropped up again and again. Putin paid it lip service when he claimed ignorance of the details of the Gusinsky arrest. But he clearly believes in--or at the very least condones--the politics of intimidation. His choice of victims reflects Russo-centrism and a suspicion of the outside world. It's a curious strategy since he is at the same time beginning to revitalize Russia's foreign policy.

The so-called oligarchs are understandably scared. Their rise was littered with suspicious deals and, quite often, corpses. Targeting them is popular, especially with the majority of Russians who have benefited little from robber capitalism. Putin's own ratings have not suffered. And he has continued to push Russia's economic interests, moving aggressively to secure a role for his country in the oil-rich Caspian.

Putin's real problem is that most people in public life--arguably including him--are vulnerable. Russia's politics have left few clean faces. If the oligarchs really feel under pressure, a new wave of compromising materials could flood the country. Those revelations could touch Putin and his team. It would become a contest between very nasty folks, all eager to rattle the skeletons out of one another's closets. Think of it as a shame-off in a land with no shame. Putin has embarked on a high-risk strategy. The big question is how far he has thought it through. If it turns out he is improvising, that is when the real mess will begin.