Putin Takes the Helm, But Doesn't Reveal a Course

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There's a firm hand on Moscow's tiller now, but nobody knows quite where the ship is headed. President Vladimir Putin was inaugurated Sunday at a low-key ceremony in which he promised to be "guided only by the interests of the state," but while the former KGB officer speaks of democracy, he also talks in the same breath about strengthening the state; and although he says he will move decisively to get Russian capitalism up and running, he also looks set to expand state involvement in the economy. And while Boris Yeltsin's designated heir hailed his ascent as the first democratic transfer of power in Russia's 1,100-year history, winning in a landslide without declaring one's agenda suggests Russian democracy has a way to go.

Though more is set to be revealed in a domestic-policy address to the Duma on Wednesday, it's far from clear whether Putin will protect the interests of the oligarchs who got rich off Yeltsin's reforms and then bought their way into his inner circle. Putin is expected to strengthen tax collection, which may not please the money men who signed off on his rise to power, but the extent to which he'll challenge their grip on political and economic power remains an open question. The think tank preparing his economic package is composed mostly of highly regarded liberal economists, and Putin may even spend some of the nationalist political capital he established in his Chechnya campaign — and in rebuffing Western complaints over human rights violations there — to force Russians to swallow some more economic "shock therapy" in the hope of reviving the economy.

The most profound difference between the Yeltsin and Putin eras, however, may be in the way post-communist Russia relates to the West. Where Yeltsin tendered the begging bowl and was prepared to mortgage Moscow's big-power status to secure financial bailouts, Putin has drawn a line in the sand. His vision may be capitalist, but the new president's security doctrine suggests a more hostile or competitive relationship with the West than his predecessor's. And with Washington currently seized with enthusiasm for missile defense, that may even translate into a new nuclear arms race. Clinton-era conventional wisdom held that Russia's economic turmoil — and the West's ability to offer bailouts — neutralized Moscow's potential to mount geopolitical challenges to Washington. But Putin's message appears to be, "There's more to this than the economy, stupid."