Albright Attempts to Solve the Putin Puzzle

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Madeleine Albright may be in Moscow to pick up the pieces, but all of Bill Clinton's horses and all of his men are going to have a struggle to put the U.S.-Russia relationship back together again. The secretary of state began three days of talks in Moscow Monday at a meeting with Russian foreign minister Igor Ivanov, disagreeing sharply over Russia's war in Chechnya. And in a sign that post-Cold War relations have come full circle, the Clinton administration is stressing that Washington's primary concern is Russia's nuclear capability, rather than the fate of economic reform or foreign policy.

Albright's priority in Moscow will be to size up acting president Vladimir Putin, with whom she'll meet Wednesday. The KGB career officer handpicked to succeed Boris Yeltsin — and the strong favorite to win the presidency in March's election — has been viewed as something of an enigma in the West. He's a tough-talking author of the war in Chechnya who clenches his jaw in the face of Western criticism and emphasizes the need for a more central role for the state, yet he also has the backing of Anatoly Chubais and other economic reformers long championed by the West. Putin may, in fact, be a current-day clone of former Chilean dictator General Augusto Pinochet, who combined authoritarianism with free-market economics.

"Many of Russia's economic reformers have long dreamed of someone who would suppress opposition and allow them to get on with what they claim is best for Russia," says TIME Moscow correspondent Yuri Zarakhovich. "The reformers' shameless greed, dishonesty and corruption fed the flames of a conservative communist and nationalist backlash, because botched reforms have left 51 million Russians below the poverty line. Now, many reformers say that only authoritarianism can work in Russia — authoritarianism by liberal reformers." If Putin plans to play the part, his ascendancy could raise an interesting challenge for the West. After all, while Pinochet was given a nod and a wink by the West back in the '70s, times have supposedly changed. Then again, the U.S. has never allowed China's authoritarian reformism to become a deal breaker.