The Politics of Mind over Matter

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On the last day of 1999, Russians turned on their TV sets and received the shock of their lives. Instead of his traditional New Year's message, Boris Yeltsin painfully slurred out the news that he was leaving office that day, handing the country over to a "powerful man, worthy of being President," his 47-year-old Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. Within hours Yeltsin had disappeared from the Kremlin and people's lives.

The change was exhilarating. Gone was the inarticulate, feeble old man whose tippling and endless vacations were the stuff of black jokes. In his place was a crisp young graduate of one of Russia's best universities, a judo black belt and a former officer in the Úlite foreign branch of the KGB. His biography became a best seller, and even the quality of his Russian received rave reviews. The new President stimulated a sea change in the public mood. Putin's first aim, his p.r. guru Gleb Pavlovsky remarked at the time, was to help Russians overcome the mass inferiority complex that had set in since the 1991 breakup of the Soviet Union. By most accounts, he has succeeded brilliantly. Concludes Yuri Levada, one of the country's top sociologists, looking back on Putin's first 12 months: "He has given Russians hope."

Putin was supposed to have given them a lot more than hope. At the beginning of his second year in power, he has consolidated his grip on power and enjoys unprecedented popularity, but Russia faces a host of economic and health problems. Promised economic and military reforms have yet to happen, while government conduct seems to be sliding back toward what some observers call "the new autocracy."

This time last year expectations were different. Then, Kremlin officials described his appointment as the final victory of the old fox Yeltsin. Putin would continue Yeltsin's line, at the same time protecting the former presidential "Family" of relatives and hangers-on - a term consciously borrowed from the Mafia - from political or legal retribution. Putin's aides quietly put out a sharply different story. As soon as he was elected President in his own right, they said, he would embark on sweeping economic and political changes. Neither happened. Putin has indeed protected Yeltsin, but the Family is not pulling the strings: the price of their safety is silence and loyalty. One Family intimate, Boris Berezovsky, the billionaire power broker who played a major role in promoting Putin's career, challenged the new President. He is now chafing in exile, sometimes in the U.S, sometimes in France, trying to reinvent himself as a dissident, while his business empire is being sold off.

On the other hand, Putin's first year has turned out to be a remarkable example of mind over matter in public opinion. There have been few major achievements, several disasters and some ominous developments in the field of human rights and press freedom. Chechnya, Putin's signature policy initiative, has not been pacified as he promised and is instead sinking deeper into a brutal quagmire. Putin mentions it rarely these days. The loss of the submarine Kursk, played out in agonizing slow motion last August, showed the Russian military at its incompetent, mendacious worst. His team is weak and largely untested, while reforms in key areas like banking and land ownership have failed to materialize. Recently Putin's economic adviser, Andrei Illarionov, accused the government of squandering a year of booming world oil prices. Imports were down and foreign reserves were up, he noted, yet the government had made little headway in restructuring the economy, and a new financial crisis could occur as early as this summer. Modernization of the military, another of Putin's constant promises, is still on hold. An erratic foreign policy has worried the West, but even the flurry of official Putin visits has not led foreign capitals to take Russia any more seriously as a world power. And as the population continues to drop by about 750,000 a year, the work force is being ravaged by alcoholism, drug abuse and a growing HIV/AIDS epidemic.

Yet most Russians do not care. Putin's public approval ratings have remained phenomenally high - even the Kursk triggered only a brief dip. At the end of last year one nationwide poll asked Russians whether they looked to 2001 with more hope than in the outgoing year. The vast majority said yes, though few could explain why.

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