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Assignment: President or Tsar

Assignment: President or Tsar

Assignment: President or Tsar


Putin: President or Tsar?

In August 1999, Yeltsin named Putin, a political unknown, to be his new prime minister; eight months later Putin was the newly elected president of the Russian Federation. As the new boss in the Kremlin, Putin quickly moved to put his personal stamp on Russia’s domestic and foreign policies. At home, he moved against Russia’s notorious “oligarchs” (wealthy tycoons who gained control over gigantic pieces of the old Soviet economy in the botched privatization program carried out during the Yeltsin era). Abroad, he gave Russia’s foreign policy a new look, strongly backing the U.S. campaign against terrorism in the fall of 2001.

Putin also paid tribute to economic reforms, including changes in the tax laws and creation of a financial intelligence service to fight money laundering. Buoyed by high oil prices, the Russian economy revived. But the basic structures of Russia’s protectionist, cartel-dominated, red tape-ridden economy, including such key sectors as utilities, banks, and state-owned enterprises, remain largely unchanged.

Putin’s instincts are authoritarian; his methods are Machiavellian. He has eviscerated the independent news media. He relies heavily on the so-called siloviki (antidemocratic hard-liners from the old KGB, police, and the army) to run the country and maintain his grip on power.

The fatal poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko in a London restaurant in November 2006 was a chilling reminder that the ghost of Stalin lives on. Litvinenko, who had defected to the United Kingdom six years earlier, was a former colonel in the Russian secret service (the FSB, successor to the KGB) and a vitriolic critic of Putin. Other Putin critics and mischief makers have been murdered, including Stanislav Markelov, a lawyer who defended Chechens and dissident journalists, and Anastasia Baburova—one such dissident journalist. Baburova became one of at least fifteen journalists killed execution-style (shot in the head on a Moscow street in broad daylight) since Putin took power. A month before the Litvinenko incident, Anna Politkovskaya, a popular investigative journalist and Putin critic, was shot dead in what appeared to be a cold-blooded contract killing.