Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
30 March - 5 April 2000
Issue No. 475
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The devil they don't know

By Abdel-Malek Khalil

Vladimir Putin's victory in Russia's 26 March presidential elections was no great shock to the Russian people, who largely seemed to have elected him by default. Lacking any significant competition from right, left and centre, Putin easily claimed his 52 per cent share of a quasi-indifferent constituency demoralised by a decade of corruption, mismanagement, bankruptcy and economic chaos under Boris Yeltsin.

Putin won a decisive victory at the polls, but what are the implications for Russia? First, it seems that he will crack down even more heavily on Chechen resistance to Russian rule. On Monday, Putin announced that an important Chechen warlord, Salman Raduyev, was captured in a special operation and is being held in a secret prison in Moscow.

"This is one of the most odious bandit leaders," Putin said at a meeting with his top aides and ministers. "Now he's in prison, and that's where he belongs." The capture of Raduyev is the first time Russian forces have arrested a top Chechen leader since Moscow began its military campaign to regain control of the breakaway Chechen republic, which has unilaterally maintained its independence since 1996.

Putin also promised to step up the Russian military build-up in the entire Caucasus region, which includes Chechnya and other predominantly Muslim republics, such as Dagestan and Ingushetia. "Your bravery and dignity is a true guarantee that this region will be freed of bandits and peaceful life restored," Putin told Russian Interior Ministry troops shortly after the election results were announced in Moscow. Putin was trying to boost the low morale of the Russian army -- ostensibly carrying mopping-up operations in the region. But the clean-up effort has been dragging on for several weeks, calling into question the validity of the Kremlin's declaration of "victory" in Chechnya. Russia's new president-elect has promised to carry on with the war in Chechnya till the bitter end.

Meanwhile, Russian and international human rights organisations have expressed deep concern and growing unease that Putin's presidency will spell disaster for Russia's nascent human rights groups. Many fear that Putin will roll back liberties they fought for in the Communist era. Putin has already stepped up pressure on outspoken journalists and strengthened secret services. He has ruthlessly engaged the Chechen separatists -- a move opposed by most Russian human rights groups.

"Under the [Putin] government, our country can expect shattering upheavals that could impact surrounding countries as well," said Yuri Samodurov, director of the Sakharov Foundation. "We appeal to the governments and public of the West to re-examine their attitude toward the new Kremlin leadership; to cease conniving in its barbaric actions, its dismantlement of our hard-won democracy, and its suppression of human rights," Samodurov said.

A mysteriously elusive man, little is known about Putin beyond his exceptionally unimpressive credentials and his ruthless and bloody repression of the Chechen liberation movement. Rather than alienating public sentiment, these two factors seem to have catapulted Putin into a secure, but still dubious role as Russia's best bet.

Vladimir Putin Russian President-elect Vladimir Putin relaxing after a judo match
Many human rights groups fear that Putin's presidency will encourage a full-fledged revival of Soviet-style political persecutions, strict censorship of the media and discrimination against religious and ethnic minorities. "Over and above getting points for being a 'strong man', Putin remains as much a riddle to the Russians as he does to the rest of the world," noted political analyst Thomas Graham, of the Carnegie Endowment.

For the time being, Putin remains a political enigma; but the Russian people seem to have already categorised him as a potential political time bomb. The results of a recent poll confirm this apprehension. Russians were asked in the poll to compare Putin to an animal. Most people chose to compare him to a fox or a wolf -- both cunning, elusive and dangerous animals.

Putin's curriculum vitae confirms the man's projected blandness. In an unspectacular 15-year career in the KGB, Putin slowly but surely rose from the ranks as he cracked down on dissidents in the former Soviet Union, served in the Soviet secret police, and even emerged as a spy in East Germany.

Short, slender, with bland blond hair and baby-blue eyes, Putin comes across as impassive and, more often than not, icy cold. Followed by a retinue of clone-like aides, the president-elect works hard at projecting an image of ruthless political efficiency. "Members of the future president's inner circle look like his twin brothers -- all lean, neat, with officers' bearing -- faces absolutely devoid of any expression and empty glazed eyes," commented the Russian weekly Itogi.

After a low-key and colourless campaign, Putin's sure victory is perhaps the greatest enigma of all. Despite Putin's otherwise lacklustre image, his ruthlessness in destroying the Chechen resistance has won him sufficient support to capture the presidency. It seems that after suffering 10 long years of rampant lawlessness and state bankruptcy, many Russians have chosen a "strong man" politico over Yeltsin's ill-fated market reforms and Mafioso-style management of the Kremlin's finances.

It's a curious twist on the old saying, "The devil you know is better than the devil you don't." Russians are willing to gamble on the Putin question-mark, rather than prolong a defunct establishment.

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