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Putinism Looms Related
January 31, 2000

DAVOS, Switzerland -- A Russian doctor told the ambulance driver to take his patient directly to the morgue. "Why?" cried the patient. "I'm not dead yet." "Shut up," said the doctor. "We're not there yet." 

That lugubrious joke is being told about Vladimir Putin, chosen by the Kremlin clique to succeed Boris Yeltsin. In eight weeks, riding a wave of war hysteria, this K.G.B. apparatchik is likely to be elected president -- to take his patient, Russia, to the cooler of repression and autocratic rule. 

President Clinton refuses to see this. In his whirlwind junket to the annual Davos gathering of politicians, executives and scientists, his lame-duck army of aides passed the word that Putin could well be a closet democratic reformer. 

Americans here were already embarrassed by their president's royal arrival. The day before, Britain's Tony Blair came with a modest party of 15 to deliver his speech. 

But when hundreds of junketeering Clintonites descended on Davos, meeting participants were ordered out of the hall to make room for the huge entourage. When the offended audience resisted, the Clinton traveling claque had to relent. 

More dismaying was the Clinton refusal to see that its Russia policy -- by failing to tie economic aid to democratic reform and property rights -- has been a flop. The result has been the takeover of the government by a combination of corrupt oligarchs, the internal police and the army. 

Yeltsin's extended "family" put a K.G.B. man in place, took advantage of lawlessness in Chechnya to launch a popular war and called a snap election to capitalize on the war fever. By so doing, they avert prosecution for corruption and silence the beginnings of a free press. 

It's working for them. An instant cult of personality has been created for Putin -- tough-minded and lean-bodied, in contrast to the staggering Yeltsin -- and he rides high astride his Chechen warhorse. The army is with him: he pays the troops, and has raised spending on armaments by 50 percent. 

He is a man whose basic principle is to have no inconvenient principles. His first major political act was to double-cross the fake reformers close to the Kremlin by making a deal with the Communist Party. Now Putin controls the Kremlin while his new Communist allies -- along with the wildman Vladimir Zhirinovsky -- dominate the parliament. 

He is now counting on his generals to crush the Chechens before March 26, election day, or at least to provide the illusion of low-casualty victory until then. His surprise enemy at home is the Committee of Soldiers' Mothers, a hard-to-harass group that provides casualty figures 10 times greater than Kremlin disinformation. 

He has been suppressing the truth by arresting journalists who dare to report from the front lines and silencing independent TV commentators. Media controlled by Boris Berezovsky, the Putin sponsor reportedly denied entry to Davos by Swiss authorities, tout the new Napoleon to the skies and besmear opponents. 

That opposition is on the run. Names like Primakov and Luzhkov -- seemingly sure things for power six months ago -- have faded fast. The Communist boss Zyuganov exists only as a foil with no future. 

The only real reformer left standing is Grigory Yavlinsky, who suffered losses for daring to denounce the switch in goals from anti-terrorism to all-out war. He is gutsily running again, but his time won't come until Russians tire of stagnation, weary of war and are no longer bamboozled by the Kremlin-controlled media. 

Until then, Putin is the oligarch-K.G.B.-army choice. But his quick popularity in polls rests on war fever; when that dissipates, so may he. If he does not win a majority in the first round, the fickle Russian public could drop him overnight. 

The irony is that a "Putin era" would mean an uncompetitive, economically weakened Russia -- no threat to the West. A "Yavlinsky era" would marry a literate work force to a free-market system under law -- and Russia would soon compete as a world power. 

Those fearful of resurgence of Russian power prefer the surly stagnation of what would come to be called Putinism. The more hopeful of us wish the Russians a better life, but should be careful what we wish for.

ei Stepashin on Grigory Yavlinsky's proposals