MOSCOW, March 25 -- In the three centuries since Peter the Great laid its first stone, the Konstantinov Palace overlooking the Gulf of Finland has fallen on hard times, much like the country around it. A $150 million renovation announced this month would restore it to serve as a majestic residence for President Vladimir Putin when he visits his home town of St. Petersburg.
Putin is hardly the first Russian leader since the end of the monarchy to adopt czarist trappings. His predecessor, Boris Yeltsin, was often called "Czar Boris" for his forceful personality. But Yeltsin never managed to rule like a czar in the way that Putin has -- even if he sometimes seems unsure what to do with the power he has acquired.
Elected president a year ago Monday, Putin has come to dominate the political world in Russia more than any leader in nearly 15 years. While Yeltsin faced a parliament so hostile that he once sent tanks to shell its headquarters, Putin enjoys a submissive State Duma that routinely ratifies anything he proposes. While an aging, ailing Yeltsin disappeared for weeks at a time, Putin has made himself the unavoidable personification of the state, staging daily Kremlin meetings and photo ops to ensure that his is the only public voice that really counts.
"The power of the presidency is much stronger than it was a year ago," said Yegor Gaidar, who served as acting prime minister under Yeltsin. "Putin controls a majority in parliament, which means he is usually able to implement his own agenda, and that is a very important difference with the previous leader. He has also acted to crush the unlimited power of regional leaders."
Yet if Putin has succeeded in reestablishing a certain order after 10 years of post-Communist instability, some politicians say little has changed structurally. The governors are more polite toward Moscow, but they still run their regions as feudal baronies. Most of the business tycoons known as oligarchs continue to thrive without interference. The bureaucracy remains the force that governs much of daily life.
And while accumulating unchallenged political authority on the surface, Putin has yet to explain clearly to what end. The reforms that animated the tenures of both Yeltsin and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev have taken a back seat to the restoration of political calm.
"Putin has said that now he wants to terminate the revolution, not to start a new one," said Gleb Pavlovsky, a top political adviser.
Since rising from obscurity to take over the Kremlin, the Russian president who talks of democracy while adopting Soviet symbols and cracking down on the media has been the subject of endless debate here and in the West: Who is Putin? But after a year, Putin has assembled a record that offers a clear picture of his governing style.
In interviews with key political figures, a portrait emerges of a leader who craves power but is uncertain in the exercise of it. In his poll-driven presidency, the project that Putin has undertaken with the most energy is not reinventing the country's teetering economy or creating a civil society but bolstering his own position.
He has thrown the country's willful governors out of parliament and forced two of the most outspoken oligarchs out of the country. He has installed several fellow KGB veterans to supervise the regions, made plans to eliminate scores of political parties, taken over a quasi-autonomous television channel and laid the groundwork to seize control of the only truly independent network.
According to Gaidar, federal authorities that had controlled less than half of all government funds in Russia could receive up to 60 percent this year under Putin, a major shift in resources toward the center.
Perhaps the most striking feature of Putin's tenure so far is the absence of meaningful political opposition. Western-oriented liberals vehemently and openly castigate him, as participants at an "emergency" human rights conference did earlier this year, alleging that "a creeping constitutional coup" is taking place and condemning Putin's "distinct tendency to authoritarianism."
But while free to speak, they have little clout or popular support. Putin may have critics, but he has no real rivals.
"Unlike an American president, Putin has no opposition," said Vladimir Ryzkhov, a Duma deputy not aligned with any party. "In Russian politics, the question is always the degree of loyalty, not the degree of opposition."
"The answer is simple: He's in charge," said Grigory Yavlinsky, leader of the reformist Yabloko party. "The people in the Duma are very eager at the moment to vote the way of Putin."
Yavlinsky, possibly the country's most prominent liberal, is an interesting case in point. He forcefully accuses Putin of re-creating a police state, yet he keeps ties with the administration in hopes of influencing decisions. "We have a dialogue with the president and at the same time we are in opposition to creating a cooperative police state," Yavlinsky said.
Putin's command over the Duma was brought home in an odd, Kremlin-generated political provocation earlier this month, a "manufactured crisis," in the words of Carnegie Moscow Center analyst Lilia Shevtsova.
The Unity party, created to support Putin, shocked Moscow by announcing that it would support a Communist motion of no confidence -- not because it opposed Putin's cabinet but because a successful vote would give the president the right to dissolve the Duma and call early elections.
It was a gamble apparently devised by Pavlovsky, a wily, talkative political consultant who helped engineer Putin's rise to power. Elections, in his view, would only strengthen Putin's hammerlock on the Duma. But rank-and-file Unity lawmakers rebelled at the idea of risking their seats, and party leaders were forced to retreat.
The collapse of the convoluted plot did not faze Pavlovsky. "Sooner or later, the issue of early elections will turn up again, and the keys to this situation are in the hands of the president's side," he said. The president, however, left it to his allies to take the blame, abruptly escaping town without comment for an unscheduled Siberian ski vacation.
Indeed, despite consolidating so much power, Putin often has chosen not to use it. For all of his image as a nascent authoritarian, Putin has hesitated to make decisions at several key turns in his first year, giving rise to a new set of questions: Is he indecisive or merely deliberative? Unwilling to expend the enormous political capital that comes from 70 percent favorable ratings or unable to have his way even if he does take a stand?
It took months of dismal reports from the Far East, where thousands of people were shivering in record winter cold without power, before Putin heeded widespread calls to force out the governor of Primorye, Yevgeny Nazdratenko. Even then, Putin gave Nazdratenko a plum consolation prize, a Moscow job as head of the state fisheries agency.
Putin has also hesitated to mediate between clans competing for his ear, such as in a high-profile dispute among the country's military leaders about the best strategy for the armed forces and a public spat between his top economics adviser and his prime minister.
Inside the Kremlin, Putin's aides split into three main camps, according to politicians: one composed of the remnants of the Yeltsin insiders dubbed the "family," led by presidential chief of staff Alexander Voloshin; another group drawn from Putin's longtime colleagues in the secret services, especially security adviser Sergei Ivanov; and a third, less influential group of market reformers, led by Economics Minister German Gref.
Perhaps as a result, with the exception of a new tax system, Putin has been noticeably reluctant to push through the incomplete post-Communist reforms inherited from Yeltsin, from a banking overhaul to an agricultural land code, engendering frustration among liberals. "Our main task is to push the government to do something concrete and useful," said Boris Nemtsov, a former deputy prime minister. "Unfortunately, nothing has happened in this area."
A telling moment came last month when Putin sent long-awaited legislation to the Duma to conform the country's Communist-era criminal code to its democratic constitution by requiring a court order when law enforcement agencies want to search a residence or hold someone in jail longer than 48 hours.
Just days after submitting the bill, Putin came under heavy pressure from the nation's chief prosecutor and internal affairs minister, who strongly opposed tying the hands of law enforcement. Putin, a former KGB colonel, relented and abruptly withdrew his own legislation.
"President Putin made a tragic mistake when he called back his draft," said Duma deputy Viktor Pokhmelkin, a leader of the liberal Union of Right Forces. "Putin demonstrated his weakness and again his dependency on the law enforcement institutions."
To Pavlovsky and other Putin advisers, the response is likely to be yet another presidential campaign to increase his authority. Stalled reform, Pavlovsky said, is the fault of Russia's famously entrenched bureaucracy, which is seeking only a guarantee of its own power and a return to the stability of the late Cold War years. "They are trying," he said, "to turn Putin into Brezhnev," referring to former Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev.
Pavlovsky acknowledged the risks for even a popular president in not making choices soon. "Confidence in Putin means the readiness to wait. But this is not a readiness to wait forever."
See the original at