Is Mr. Putin a sincere democrat or a callous KGB officer in the democratic disguise who is inclined to national autocratic authoritarism?
The sweeping ascent of Russia President Vladimir Putin looks very much like his pale Slavic face: the expression of Putin's face is tense and cold, the clear eyes look with confidence and the smile is vague. His face radiates waves of energy and composure of a man coded for issuing orders and being on the look-out for an ambush.
This might have been some secret laboratory that developed the plan according to which Vladimir Putin emerged from the shadow and quickly ascended the top of power. At the end of the four slow years of his presidency, having employed various instruments for fighting against Chechen rebels and terrorists, Yeltsin’s followers, the economic chaos, oil and media oligarchs, President Putin at the age of 50 has reached the moment of absolute consolidation, the plebiscite as a result of which the pro-Putin party United Russia has won the legislative and political leadership in the Duma. This is the question of leadership in the post-Soviet empire, and Putin is likely to be re-elected president of the empire for another four or even more years at the 2004 presidential election.
The Western press is pondering over the question who President Putin is in fact? Does he revive the Russian state or just employs means provided by the state to win the election? Is Mr. Putin a sincere democrat or a callous KGB officer in the democratic disguise who is inclined to national autocratic authoritarism? All these issues are certainly of ethic importance, however they have no effect upon the populist reality in present-day Russia.
80 per cent of the Russian population likes Putin's steadfast face. People think his manners of a resolute military man in civil clothes are convincing, his harsh words and actions directed against terrorists seem reassuring, his regular attacks at oligarchs agree with the social resentment against those few who became rich during Yeltsin's epoch.
Voting at the parliamentary election has revealed some paradoxes. Communists have been defeated during the partially spontaneous and partially controlled pre-election campaign not only because they are Communists, but rather because they are capitalists. A deputy belonging to the previous Duma membership slammed the door in the face of Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov and said: "30 per cent of the Communist Party list are undisguised multi-millionaires."
The variety of political views among oligarchs or their candidates has been of no use in the liberal camp as well. Reformist Gigory Yavlinsky and "father of privatization" Anatoly Chubais, the two most respected liberal figures have paid too high for the support of oil magnate Mikhail Khodorkovsky who was arrested before the election. This has been a lunge adequate to Vladimir Putin, the man keen on karate. Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Russia's richest man has become the symbol of everything so strongly hated among the poorest masses of Russia.
All the rest is more or less predictable, the advance of Vladimir Zhirinovksy's nationalists, for example. It was easy to predict the success of more reserved new nationalists from the Rodina (Motherland) block led by the rising star of Dmitry Rogozin. Liberal democrats led by Zhirinovsky and patriots of Rogozin are highly likely to form the absolute majority block together with the pro-Putin United Russia. This union will help the president push ahead any laws in the Duma and even introduce changes to the Constitution.
It is not clear today if the president will go that far. It is easier to predict emergence of Russian Gaullism that will be particularly Russian and long; this Gaullism will mean struggle for power among different allies, team-mates or concerned followers of Vladimir Putin - nationalist roarers, true nationalists, KGB agents and so on.
It is better to try and understand what is actually going on in Russia today instead of moralizing Russians and demanding perfect democracy from them. It is quite enough that communists themselves liquidated the first communist community.
The Moscow Gaullism that President Putin wants to put down with the help of the Duma and may be through changing the Constitution will never turn back and become a copy of the perfect Western liberal institutions. We need to keep two significant factors in mind: first of all, it is important to maintain neighborly relations between expanded Europe and Russia; second, we need to mind our mutual interests in fighting against international terrorism.
Even if Putin's domestic policy is not and can not be purely European, his foreign policy is very much like Western policies and even sometimes pro-Western.
Enzo Bettiza, La Stampa